ESA’s leader gets mandate to negotiate with EU, set agenda for next ministerial council

by

BERLIN — Member states of the European Space Agency met this week in Madrid to coordinate their strategy for the next triennial ministerial meeting, set to take place in Seville, Spain, in November 2019, where delegates will decide which projects to fund.

During the Oct. 25 meeting in Madrid, ESA’s 22 members also gave their leader a mandate to negotiate the agency’s relationship with the European Union.

ESA frequently partners with the European Union but it is an independent body. The EU has been getting more involved in space projects —with its satellite navigation system Galileo and the Earth-observation program Copernicus, for example. Earlier this year, the European Commission proposed to create an “EU Agency for the Space Programme.”

“It’s now important to define what is the role of ESA,” ESA Director General Jan Woerner said at a news conference following the meeting. “It is important to know what our member states would like to see in that [agreement].”

Woerner had been warning against institutional overlap between ESA and EU. In a blog post in May, he wrote: “There is no need to develop a new Space Agency in parallel in Europe, the ramp-up of which would take decades and cost billions and would therefore in itself be a major risk to the programs it manages. We need to streamline, not double administrative layers.”

This week, member states put their support behind Woerner in his negations with the EU to establish a “Financial Framework Partnership Agreement”between the two bodies, aimed at “maximizing the coherence and efficiency of the public investments”in the European space sector, while allowing the two entities to remain autonomous.

“We have a clear way forward and therefore I am very happy that we could achieve unanimous confirmation,”Woerner said.

Woerner’s term as director general had been set to expire next summer, but he was granted a two-year extension by ESA so that he could be in office for the 2019 ministerial meeting. In an interview in August, Woerner told SpaceNews that he wanted to use the extension to build on his vision for ESA to enhance human life and to enable a “bright future of our planet.”

Woerner will have to put forth specific program proposals at the 2019 meeting, and this week ESA members adopted a resolution backing the strategy for these proposals.

“The member states pay or they don’t pay,” Woerner said. “So it’s very important to have the right proposals on the table.”

The strategy based on four pillars: science and exploration; space safety and security, which covers threats originating in space like asteroids and solar flares and threats like earthquakes, tsunami, and volcanoes; applications, which covers Earth observation, navigation and telecommunication; and enabling and support, which covers new technologies, launchers, transportation and new operations.

Two other agreements were signed on the sidelines of the meeting. At least five ESA member states —Germany, Italy, France, Switzerland and Spain —agreed to give preference to European-made rockets Ariane 6 and Vega-C for their future launch needs. Ariane 6 and Vega-C are scheduled for their first flights in 2020 and 2019, respectively. ESA also agreed to cooperate with the Italian space agency ASI to deploy the asteroid-hunting Fly-Eye telescope to the site of Monte Mufara in Sicily.