COPENHAGEN, Denmark — The European Space Agency () will ask its member nations June 13 to reverse their earlier position and agree to launch a series of environment-monitoring satellites starting in late 2013 despite the absence of funds to operate them, ESA and European government officials said.
Buckling under pressure from Earth observation data users since the unexpected failure of the Envisat satellite in April, ESA will ask its ruling council to approve contracts to launch the Sentinel environmental satellites during a June 13-14 meeting at ESA headquarters in Paris.
“We have already seen how the loss of Envisat has affected users, for example in the aftermath of an earthquake in Italy,” ESA Earth Observation Director Volker Liebig said June 5. “The users are sending us a clear message and we will ask our council to approve entering into a contract with” for the launch, in late 2013, of the Sentinel 1 satellite. “We don’t think we really have any choice. We cannot break faith with the users.”
The decision, if accepted by ESA governments, would represent an about-face for the agency, which has repeatedly warned the commission of the 27-nation European Union that the commission, not ESA, is responsible for the satellites’ operating budgets starting in 2014.
ESA’s ruling council went so far as to warn the commission, in writing, that it would order ESA not to launch the satellites if the commission did not signal its commitment to operate GMES beyond mid-2014.
The council’s letter, sent in October to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, did not lack for clarity. It said ESA must reserve the Sentinel launches starting in mid-2012.
“In the absence, at that time, of EU commitments for the reliability of operational funding beyond 2014, we will instruct ESA not to launch the satellites,” the council’s letter to Barroso said.
The operating budget for the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program, an elaborate system of Earth observation satellites and ground facilities, has long been the commission’s responsibility.
ESA and the commission together have already spent more than 3 billion euros ($4 billion) on GMES in preparation for the commission’s expected takeover as part of the European Union’s 2014-2020 budget.
The two agencies had agreed that, after ESA financed early GMES development, including part of the development of three Sentinel satellites and three duplicates, the commission would secure 5.8 billion euros for GMES in its multiyear financial framework budget.
But the commission, buffeted by multiple budget pressures that have nothing to do with GMES, has been unable to reinsert GMES into the seven-year budget package a year after it removed it.
Despite the protests of several large European Union member nations and of the European parliament, the commission’s preferred GMES funding mechanism is an intergovernmental agreement financed outside the seven-year package.
ESA officials have said they have no objection in principle, but that it will take months, and possibly years, to create the intergovernmental agreement structure and secure the funds for it.
Meanwhile, GMES operations are funded only to mid-2014.
ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain wrote Barroso in May asking that the commission find an interim budget for GMES to support early operations while a longer-term solution was sought. Such a gesture would give Dordain the cover he needed to ask ESA governments to agree to contract the launches.
One ESA official said that Barroso has not answered Dordain’s letter.
Mauro Facchini, head of the commission’s GMES Bureau, said June 4 the commission would be hard-pressed to find funds available in the seven-year budget that ends in 2013.
“In principle all of the money is committed, so the margins are small,” Facchini said here during the “GMES in Action” conference organized by ESA and the commission. “I don’t see how this would be possible.”
Liebig said much of the work in preparing ground reception stations for the Sentinel satellites — after Sentinel 1, Sentinel 2 and Sentinel 3, carrying different observing instruments, are scheduled for launch in 2014 — has been suspended as ESA figures out whether to proceed with the launches.
Liebig said the operating costs for the first year of Sentinel 1 are expected to be about 75 million euros including the ground infrastructure. For the first three Sentinels taken together, first-year operations are expected to total 175 million euros, he said.
ESA has struck temporary agreements with the Canadian Space Agency for the use of Canada’s Radarsat-2 for an interim period to help fill the gap left by Envisat.
Government and industry officials said one reason GMES has been unable to secure a place in the commission’s multiyear financial package is that some nations, notably Poland and Portugal, fear that GMES’s high cost will reduce funding available for projects dear to them. Among these is the so-called Cohesion Fund.
Commission officials say they are unlikely to have a firm seven-year budget until sometime in early 2013, if not later.
“The loss of Envisat has put tremendous pressure on us from users to launch the Sentinels as soon as possible,” said Josef Aschbacher, head of ESA’s GMES Space Office. “We will be talking to our member states and at ESA we would favor an early launch, hoping that the [operations] funding will be found along the way.