ESA kicks off ministerial meeting

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SEVILLE, Spain — Representatives of ESA’s member states gathered here Nov. 27 for the start of a two-day meeting that will end with decisions on what programs to fund, and at what levels, for the next three years.

Ministers from ESA’s 22 member states, along with those of cooperating and observer states, provided an overview of their views and areas of interest in presentations at a four-hour opening session of the Space19+ meeting, before going into closed-door deliberations.

That included an extended presentation by ESA Director General Jan Woerner, who gave his closing argument for the proposed budget of 12.5 billion euros ($13.8 billion) for the next three years that he and the agency has been working on for the last two years. That budget funds program in four pillars: science and exploration, applications, enabling and support, and space safety.

“So, it’s time for decisions, and this is what you decide today and tomorrow, and therefore we’ll see what can be done,” he said.

That budget seeks funding for several key exploration programs, such as starting work on a telecommunications and refueling module for the lunar Gateway as well as a habitation module. ESA also wants to start work on a lunar lander called the European Large Logistics Lander that could be used to transport cargo to the lunar surface or be part of a lunar sample return effort.

Another part of the exploration program is a proposal to work with NASA on a Mars sample return effort. NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, slated to launch next summer, will cached samples of Martian rocks and regolith that will be collected by a second mission in the mid-2020s to be launched into Martian orbit, where a third mission will take for return to Earth. ESA proposes to lead that third mission and play a major role in the second, if ministers approve.

Other pillars of the budget proposal support work on Earth science, telecommunications and navigation programs, and back work on Europe’s new Ariane 6 and Vega C rockets to ensure they remain competitive in a broader launch market. The space safety pillar features programs from space weather research to planetary defense, including new spacecraft missions to monitor the sun and visit a near Earth asteroid.

During the opening session, ministers did not reveal many details about whether they will support those major initiatives. There is no guarantee, though, that all the programs will win funding. At the previous ministerial meeting in late 2016, ministers did not pledge enough money to go forward with the Asteroid Intercept Mission, which would have flown to a near Earth asteroid, Didymos, and observed NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft collide with the asteroid’s small moon. ESA is instead seeking funding at this ministerial for a smaller mission, Hera, that will survey Didymos several years after DART’s arrival.

That setback was one of the reasons that ESA devoted far more attention to preparations for this ministerial meeting, including working with ministers far in advance to discuss the proposal.

“We’ve had already several discussions with the member states about all of these programs, and there is not a single program where the member states said, ‘Oh, this is a bad proposal,’” Woerner said in an interview last month. None of the ministers, he said, expressed reservations in public or private about the proposal, but he acknowledged that he won’t know for certain until the ministers submit their budget allocations identifying funding for specific programs.

“The conditions for success have been met,” said Jean-Yves Le Gall, head of the French space agency CNES, in remarks at the ministerial meeting. “It remains to turn it into reality.”