MUNICH — The Earth observation program of the European Space Agency (ESA), which in recent years has become the agency’s most dynamic undertaking, is moving toward a June showdown with the European Commission over funding for a multibillion-dollar environmental program.

June is when the 19-nation ESA must give launch provider Arianespace a commitment for the launch of the Sentinel 1A environment monitoring satellite in mid-2013.

ESA’s ruling council has threatened to refuse to commit to the launch if the European Commission does not send a signal that it will support the multiyear Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) effort, in which ESA and the commission have invested well over 2 billion euros ($2.6 billion).

Specifically, ESA wants assurances that the commission will fund its share of GMES operations in the commission’s next seven-year budget, which takes effect in 2014 and has not yet been finalized. To keep within spending targets set by European Union governments, the commission has proposed to remove GMES from the seven-year package and to try to find other ways of financing it.

ESA and several of the European Union’s biggest members have urged the commission to find cuts elsewhere and to return GMES to the multiyear budget.

If that does not happen, ESA has said, the agency cannot in good conscience launch expensive satellites only to deorbit them a year later because the commission has decided it cannot fund their operations.

“This has put us in a difficult position,” Volker Liebig, ESA’s director of Earth observation, said. “Our June deadline with Arianespace is a firm one that permits Arianespace to give us a three-month launch window for Sentinel 1A. Between six and nine months later we have to commit with Arianespace for the launches of Sentinels 2A and 3A.”

In an interview here at the IABG satellite testing facility, where ESA’s three Swarm satellites are preparing for an August launch on a four-year mission to study Earth’s magnetic field, Liebig said ESA has seen encouraging signs that European Union authorities realize the urgency.

The European Parliament passed a resolution the week of Feb. 13 calling for GMES to be reinstated into the multiyear funding package. “This is a positive sign,” Liebig said, noting that the parliament must approve the commission’s final 2014-2020 budget.

The European Union’s Competitiveness Council, which includes ministers from all 27 European Union nations, has agreed to discuss GMES at a meeting it has scheduled for the week of Feb. 20, Liebig said. “At least it is on the agenda, and that is an important step,” he said.

Finally, the Danish government, which now has the European Union’s six-month rotating presidency, has scheduled a meeting in May to draw an initial map of what the seven-year financial package will look like.

Liebig said GMES backers are trying to assure that the program is included in the list of spending items that will be debated for inclusion in the seven-year funding envelope.

“That will give us some time before we have to commit to Arianespace in June,” Liebig said.

One idea that ESA and some European governments are considering is removing all satellite development costs from the commission’s budgets. Under the general division of responsibility agreed to between the commission and ESA, it is ESA that develops the satellite systems and the commission that finances their exploitation.

This division is valid not only for GMES but also for the multibillion-dollar Galileo satellite navigation project that is owned by the commission and has been included in the proposed seven-year budget.

Taking out the development costs of Galileo and GMES would lighten the financial load on the commission by more than 2 billion euros, Liebig said. The commission’s current estimate of GMES’s total cost for 2014-2020 is 5.8 billion euros.

In addition to its struggle with the European Commission, ESA’s Earth observation program is confronting financial stresses in its member states that could compromise ESA’s own Earth observation program.

ESA governments are scheduled to meet in November to decide their multiyear budget and program priorities. Earth observation missions will figure heavily on the agenda.

A second-generation polar-orbiting meteorological satellite program, called EPS-Second Generation, will require some 715 million euros from ESA.

Liebig said the program has reduced some of its planned payload instruments so that its budget is not increased despite the fact that the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently said it would not be able to provide several planned instruments to the effort, notably a microwave sounder.

The polar-orbiting meteorological satellite system is being funded mostly by Europe’s Eumetsat meteorological satellite organization, which is having troubles of its own in securing its governments’ financial commitment to the program.

ESA also plans to ask its governments in November to support a fourth Earth Observation Envelope Program, which would fund several satellites. Liebig said the proposed budget for this effort is nearly 1.9 billion euros spread over five years.

Finally, ESA has its own GMES program to continue, featuring the Jason series of ocean altimetry satellites and a Sentinel 5 instrument to be placed on a Eumetsat spacecraft. The agency plans to ask for 405 million euros for this, spread over six or seven years.

“Our problem is that we have these three large programs coming up for approval at the same time,” Liebig said. “It is not clear how some of our bigger member states will react given the difficult economic situation.”



ESA’s Dordain Restates Sentinel Launch Cancellation Threat

New Pressure To Add GMES Back to Long-term Budget

European GMES Program at Risk as Battle Over Funding Escalates

Researchers Call Plan To End GMES Commitment a ‘Disaster’


Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.