Johann-Dietrich Woerner
Johann-Dietrich Woerner. Credit: ESA/P. Sebirot

PARIS — The European Space Agency will ask its 22 member governments in December for a multi-year financial commitment of around 11 billion euros ($12.2 billion) including a billion-euro telecommunications research effort to be conducted in partnership with the private sector and around 1.4 billion euros in new Earth observation missions, ESA Director-General Jan Woerner said Nov. 7.

Addressing a press briefing here, Woerner said multiple elements of the agency’s proposal remain unsettled and are likely to be negotiated at the last minute during the Dec. 1-2 conference of ESA ministers, scheduled to occur in Lucerne, Switzerland.

Notable among the issues to be settled are the Norwegian government’s proposed 75 percent reduction in its contribution to ESA’s optional program, where 80 percent of the agency’s work is done; and the British government’s difficulties related to the drop in the value of the British pound relative to the euro.

Woerner said he was confident that issues related directly to Britain’s expected withdrawal from the 28-nation European Union would not constitute an obstacle to a continued U.K. role at ESA, which is an international organization that is not part of the EU.

But the Brexit debate could have an effect on non-British citizens working for ESA in Britain, and for British nationals working for ESA outside the UK, he said.

Norway proposes 75 percent reduction in ESA contribution

Woerner conceded that the situation in Norway was worrisome, but he said the Norwegian parliament may yet resist the government’s proposal to slash Norway’s contributions to ESA’s optional programs.

Geir Hovmork, deputy director of the Norwegian Space Centre, said the current proposal is to cut to about 50 million euros the total Norwegian involvement in all ESA efforts not related to space science and ESA’s over head charges, which are part of the mandatory contribution required of all ESA members based on their gross domestic product.

In an Oct. 27 interview, Hovmork said the government’s move is not intended as a critique of ESA as a part of a broader effort to reign in government spending and focus on Norwegian programs.

“Of course this makes us very nervous,” Woerner said of the Norwegian plan. “It’s not good if a member state is reducing its contribution, regardless of the size of the member state.

“We have to face it: In several member states right now we have some complicated situations. We have immigration and internal security issues, and some financial problems. But I hope the value of space is understood at the end of the day.”

Continuing ISS to 2024 with NASA and a 2nd Orion service module

Here are the key budget takeaways from the briefing:

— ESA will ask for 800 million euros to continue work on the International Space Station until 2024. The amount to be solicited will continue ESA’s role at the orbital outpost until 2021, meaning further funding will be needed at the next ESA ministerial conference in about three years.

Woerner said a commitment to 2024 was needed to permit the agency to start work on a second service module for NASA”s Orion crew-transport vehicle. Europe and NASA have an agreement under which ESA builds the service module instead of paying NASA cash to fund Europe’s share of the station’s common operating costs.

ExoMars funding: Filling a 400-million-euro gap

— Europe’s ExoMars program with Russia, which began with the launch of an orbiter that has entered Mars orbit and an lander that performed its entry and descent mission but crashed when its computer shut off the thrusters that should have slowed its final descent.

ESA needs about 400 million euros to complete work on the ExoMars 2020 mission with Russia, which includes a European-built rover. Woerner has told ESA delegations that the agency needs from them about 300 million euros and will find the remaining 100 million euros from elsewhere in its budget.

ESA will deliver a report on the lander — what worked, what did not and why — and on the financial requirements still needed for ExoMars at a meeting scheduled for Nov. 21-22. Then a final proposal will be put before these governments at the Dec. 1-2 conference.

“Of course then can also decide not to go on,” Woerner said. We have to face it: If they don’t have the money to support it, we should ask the question of whether we should cancel it. I hope we can get convincing numbers at the end of this month and convince the member states to go on with it.”

Italian Space Agency President Battiston: We fully support ExoMars

Italy is the major contributor to ExoMars. Roberto Battiston, president of the Italian Space Agency, said the Italian government supports continuing ExoMars and is ready to pay around 120 million euros of the 300 million needed.

“People would not understand why we launched an orbiter to relay data from a rover and then declined to complete work on the rover,” Battiston said in an Oct. 27 interview. “That would not be very logical. Italy is standing behind the program.”

— ESA is preparing a billion-euro telecommunications program to cover multiple satellite and ground segment partnerships with European industry. Woerner said some elements of the funding stretch over two years, others over five years, and the billion-euro figure assumes that industrial partnerships will be signed.

— The agency’s multi-year Earth Observation Envelope Program, which includes multiple satellites to be launched in the coming years, is asking for 1.4 billion euros. The program has remained relatively stable in recent months, altough the French-led MicroCarb carbon dioxide monitoring satellite, which was a late-arriving proposal, has been removed from the package to be presented in Lucerne.

Woerner said the headline figure of 11 billion euros sought at the ministerial conference is not the key metric for the agency. Instead, he said the annual budget is where ESA’s spending power is found. He said that should continue at around 3.5 billion euros per year, not including the substantial annual contribution from the European Commission.

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