PARIS — The European Space Agency () agreed June 14 to proceed with the launch of the Sentinel 1A environmental satellite in late 2013 following an indication — but no commitment — from the European Commission that it will consider operating the satellite and a fleet of others like it, ESA officials said.
The 19-nation ESA will immediately begin negotiations with Europe’slaunch consortium to secure a three-month launch window for Sentinel 1A starting in October 2013. The satellite will be launched aboard a Europeanized Russian Soyuz rocket from Europe’s Guiana Space Center in French Guiana.
ESA and the European Commission — the executive arm of the 27-nation European Union (EU) — have been at loggerheads over Sentinel 1A and the other components of the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program for a year.
It is the commission, and not ESA, that agreed to operate GMES starting in 2014 as part of its next seven-year financial package, which begins that year.
But assembling an acceptable package at a time of financial crisis in several EU nations has proved difficult, and the EU Commission proposed removing GMES and the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) from the seven-year budget.
That led ESA governments to order the agency not to spend any funds on launching the satellites, since there would not be anyone to pay for their operations once they were in orbit. ESA had said it needed to begin booking Sentinel satellite flights in June.
Multiple protests from individual EU member governments apparently reached the government of Denmark, which holds the EU’s six-month rotating presidency.
At an information meeting of EU ministers June 10-11 in Horsen, Denmark, EU governments agreed to place GMES back inside the multiyear financial envelope, whose total budget is expected to be around 1 trillion euros ($1.3 trillion) during the seven-year period.
The Danish proposal is to place GMES alongside ITER and Galileo, the EU’s satellite navigation program, in a special category. Left to be decided is whether this category will be given a single budget, or whether each program will be approved with a separate budget.
EU spokesman Preben Aamann, in an email response to questions, said June 14 that the Danish EU presidency anticipates that the projects will be given separate budgets. He also reiterated that, in terms of the seven-year package, “nothing is agreed before everything is agreed.”
Denmark’s EU presidency ends June 30 and will be followed by Cyprus. It may not be before mid-2013, or even later, when a definitive budget is known.
The EU Commission and ESA have estimated that GMES will cost about 5.8 billion euros during the seven years.
ESA Earth Observation Director Volker Liebig, in a June 14 interview, said the agency agreed that the EU’s latest decision on the multiyear budget is the signal the agency had been waiting for. But ESA still expects the EU to provide for full GMES operations, in keeping with the general division of authority in which ESA performs research and development, and the EU Commission is responsible for operations.
“It was necessary but still not sufficient step,” Liebig said of the EU decision to put GMES into the seven-year financial envelope. “The next step is to find out how much funding will be granted to GMES.”
Liebig said he remains concerned that while Galileo and GMES are nearing operations, meaning the risk of cost overruns is reduced, the same cannot be said of ITER.
ITER’s construction budget had been estimated at 10 billion euros in 2009. It has since grown to 15 billion euros through the reactor’s planned completion in 2019. EU nations are responsible for 45 percent of the total budget.
Liebig’s fight for his program — Earth observation is ESA’s biggest budget line — does not stop at GMES. The multiyear Earth Observation Envelope Program is coming up for renewal at the November meeting of ESA government ministers, and already these governments are pushing back against Liebig’s budget proposals.
This is the program that funds the Explorer series of Earth observation satellites. Liebig had proposed a five-year budget of 1.9 billion euros and was told “by almost all our member states” to return with a smaller figure.
During the June 13-14 council meeting, ESA proposed to chop the last year from the Earth observation envelope program. The new four-year effort would cost 1.6 billion euros.
Liebig concedes that even this figure might not hold if, for example, the French government maintains its position to contribute zero to it. A zero contribution of any of ESA’s biggest members — Germany, France, Italy and Britain — is often a program death sentence.
It will not be until the fall when each government’s negotiating stance for the ministerial is clear. Liebig said that at 1.6 billion euros during four years, the proposed program is no bigger than the one it is succeeding, after accounting for inflation.