Europe’s weather satellite organization, Eumetsat, has begun planning for its third generation of Meteosat meteorological satellites even as it copes with delays in the second-generation Meteosat series.

The 18-nation Eumetsat of Darmstadt, Germany, and the European Space Agency (ESA) are expected to begin work on the third generation early next year, assuming ESA ministers approve the plan at a scheduled conference in December.

Ernst Koenemann, director of programs at Eumetsat, said it is not too soon to begin financing preliminary design work, even though the Meteosat Third Generation satellites will not start launching until around 2015.

Koenemann said Eumetsat expects ESA government ministers to approve the start of work on the next Meteosat series as part of ESA’s Earth Observation Envelope Program, covering the period 2008-2012.

How much money ESA governments will grant for Earth observation, including the Eumetsat effort, is unclear. Part of the agency’s Earth observation program now is tied to financing expected from the European Commission, the executive arm of the 25-nation European Union.

Commission financing for the period 2007-2013 was supposed to be decided in June but fell victim to European Union debate over future spending priorities. A decision on financing is not expected before early 2006.

Almost by default, Eumetsat has been thrust onto center stage in Europe’s space-policy debate following the decision by ESA and the European Commission to make a program called Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) a showcase element of Europe’s future space program.

Where GMES begins and Eumetsat’s program ends is still a subject of debate. Eumetsat in recent years has broadened its mandate far beyond meteorology to include environmental monitoring and has financed the creation of Satellite Application Facilities dedicated to specific environment-related tasks.

In the latest example, Eumetsat’s ruling council on July 6 approved development of an eighth such facility , dedicated to hydrology, to be located at Italy’s national meteorological office. Italy will develop data on precipitation. Austria’s meteorological agency will focus on soil moisture, and Finland will study snow-related environmental products.

Each national member takes charge of some Satellite Application Facility costs, reducing the financing required from Eumetsat. In the case of the hydrology facility , Eumetsat will be paying 2.85 million euros ($3.4 million). The facility is scheduled to enter operation in 2010.

ESA is planning five so-called Sentinel satellites as part of its GMES program, which depends in part on funding from the European Commission. These missions include all-weather radar imaging, a satellite carrying a superspectral optical and near-infrared imager, an oceanographic mission similar to the U.S.-European Jason and Jason-2 satellites, and atmospheric-chemistry satellites in geostationary and low Earth orbit.

At a June 21-22 meeting of its ruling council, ESA presented an outline of its GMES plans that called for spending 2.3 billion euros between 2006 and 2013 for the five Sentinel missions, including construction, launch and operation of the satellites. Sixty percent of this sum, according to ESA, would come from the European Commission.

One European government official said several delegations at the ESA meeting protested that a program of this size cannot be approved in December, especially given the uncertainty of the European Commission budget.

Eumetsat currently operates four Meteosat satellites in geostationary orbit, three centered over Europe and Africa and a fourth stationed over the Indian Ocean to fill a gap in global weather monitoring.

One of the four, Meteosat-8, is the first of four planned Meteosat Second Generation satellites, intended to provide uninterrupted coverage through 2015.

Eumetsat routinely has two of it’s most up-to-date satellites — one active and one spare — at its prime location at 0 degrees longitude over the equator, which is why the launch of the next second-generation Meteosat is a priority. But because of a series of delays related to its launch aboard an Ariane 5G rocket, this satellite is not expected to reach orbit until November.

Alongside the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Department of Defense, Eumetsat is building a series of polar-orbiting meteorological satellites, with the U.S. and European sponsors providing instruments on each other’s satellites.

In the first example of this partnership, called the Initial Joint Polar System, the U.S. NOAA-N satellite launched in May is carrying a European-supplied microwave humidity sounder — an instrument to measure water vapor in the atmosphere — that also will be on board three Eumetsat Metop polar-orbiting satellites as well as a second NOAA satellite.

The first Metop satellite is tentatively scheduled for launch in the second quarter of 2006 aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket operated by a Euro-Russian company from the Russian-run Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

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