— The 18.6 percent budget increase at the European Space Agency (ESA) this year reflects the gradual shift of focus away from launch vehicles and toward Earth observation and long-delayed spending on operations related to the international space station.

The budget also features a new emphasis on space exploration as distinct from ESA’s regular science program, and the first slice of funding for what ESA officials say will almost certainly become major new efforts in the coming years in space situational awareness, telecommunications satellites co-financed with the private sector and ESA-managed projects financed by the European Commission.

The total 2009 budget planned at the 18- nation agency is about 3.6 billion euros ($4.85 billion).

Nearly 20 percent of the money is coming from , which has long been ESA’s biggest single contributor. , which as ‘s biggest national economy pays the largest share of ESA’s mandatory budget – mainly for the science program – remains in second place, accounting for 18 percent of ESA’s total budget this year.

is the third-largest contributor, at 10.3 percent, followed by (7.5 percent), (5 percent) and (4.5 percent).

ESA’s headquarters, administration and certain other charges are covered by the mandatory budget. But the science program, which in 2009 will have 434.5 million euros to spend – up 9 percent from 2008 – makes up 63 percent of this part of the budget, which is paid by automatic contributions of each nation based on gross domestic product. ESA’s science budget was accorded a 3.5 percent annual increase, with no adjustment for inflation, for at least three years starting in 2009.

The space science spending increase for 2009 is partly a consequence of the fact that the large Herschel-Planck mission is scheduled for launch in April.

Earth observation is now just behind launch vehicles as ESA’s single biggest budget focus. The agency is scheduled to inaugurate late this year the use of ‘s venerable Soyuz rocket from in . ESA also expects to complete development and conduct the debut flight of the Vega small satellite launcher late in 2009 or early 2010.

Presenting the agency’s 2009 budget and program goals during a Jan. 16 press briefing, ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said Soyuz likely would launch “at least one-half” of ESA’s satellites planned in the coming years. Soyuz has been proposed – alongside the heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket – to launch a major share of the 34 Galileo satellites that ESA and the European Commission plan to deploy between 2010 and 2015.

In addition to these new launcher developments, ESA continues to fund so-called technology-accompaniment efforts for the Ariane 5 rocket despite the vehicle’s proven design and current record of 28 consecutive successful flights. ESA governments in November agreed to continue funding a new, restartable upper-stage engine for Ariane 5, but use of the new stage depends on substantial new financing to be decided in 2011.

Meanwhile, ESA officials are no longer shy about advertising their Earth observation effort as without equal among the world’s major space powers. The program has not just equipped with a broadening fleet of space-based environmental sensors. When combined with national funding efforts in , – and helped by technology export restrictions – it also has given European companies a trouble-free ride to world dominance as providers of Earth observation satellites to the international market.

The 45 percent increase in ESA’s Earth observation budget in 2009 is partly a result of the fact that the agency plans to launch three environmental satellites this year. But even without these one-time expenses, the agency’s Earth observation budget would have increased to finance a new series of satellites, called Sentinels, which are being co-financed with the European Commission.

Similarly, the 46 percent increase in spending at ESA’s Human Spaceflight division is not the result of any new policy direction, but rather the fact that ESA’s laboratory module was launched to the international space station in 2008. ESA now must use the laboratory, and also begin to pay NASA ‘s 8.3 percent share of the station’s common resources.

ESA is paying its station utility bills in kind, not in cash. The biggest contribution is flights of the Automated Transfer Vehicle, a large unnamed cargo carrier that made its first flight in 2008. The next flight is scheduled for 2010.

The international space station partners in 2009 are scheduled to complete the investment needed to increase the facility’s permanent crew size to six from the current three. Dordain said he will be traveling to in the coming weeks to open negotiations on a new flight opportunity for a European astronaut aboard ‘s Soyuz capsule.