ESA moving ahead on new Copernicus missions despite lack of U.K. agreement

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WASHINGTON — With a deadline for an agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union on British involvement in, and funding for, Copernicus come and gone, the European Space Agency is pressing ahead on several missions in the hopes a deal can eventually be reached.

British and European negotiators had been working toward a Nov. 30 deadline regarding British participation in the E.U. aspects of Copernicus post-Brexit, including a British contribution of 750 million euros ($850 million) to the program. That deadline passed, though, without a deal.

Without an agreement, the Copernicus program faces a funding shortfall that could jeopardize work on six new Earth science missions approved at ESA’s 2019 ministerial meeting, contracts for which ESA awarded in July 2020.

The issue came up at the latest meeting of the ESA Council that concluded Dec. 15. Josef Aschbacher, director general of ESA, mentioned the 750 million euro funding shortfall during a media briefing after the meeting. Several options were under consideration, he said, including simply delaying the deadline on an agreement for as long as possible.

“One [option] that is most likely to be brought forward is to keep the door open and postpone the decision point into the future,” he said, specifically until the critical design review (CDR) for the missions. “We can, with some arrangements and negotiations with industry, we could push this date into 2024, which would give us three more years to negotiate and, basically, find the 750 million. The participation of the U.K. is still a priority and our preferred option.”

That would mean that the CDR, where final approval is given to move into full-scale assembly of the spacecraft, would become what he called the “break point or go/no-go decision” on proceeding based on available funding.

That plan poses complications for the companies working on those missions. “What we expect from our institutions is to come up with an agreement in between the PDR and the CDR,” said Philippe Pham, senior vice president for Earth observation, navigation and science at Airbus Defence and Space, during a panel at World Satellite Business Week Dec. 16. The preliminary design review, or PDR, of those Copernicus missions is scheduled for 2022, with CDRs between late 2023 and 2024.

“It gives us some room for maneuver for final agreement to preserve the six missions,” he said. “What we expect is that the E.U. will come up with a solution for the missing Brexit budget and keeping the schedule of the six missions.”

“It’s so important that we protect all the six missions,” said Massimo Comparini, deputy chief executive of Thales Alenia Space, on the same panel. He said that while the missions have a high level of technical maturity, there shouldn’t be any attempt to compress development schedules between reviews, or from CDR to launch.

“We’re talking about such important missions that we cannot have any kind of shortcut,” he said.