Eumetsat Members Withhold Approval of Polar-orbiting Weather Satellite Constellation

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PARIS — Europe’s meteorological satellite organization, Eumetsat, will spend the next three months trying to persuade its member nations to finance a next-generation polar-orbiting satellite constellation following its inability to win unanimous approval for the work the week of June 27, a senior Eumetsat official said July 1.

While the delay will not by itself cause problems for the second-generation polar system, called EPS-SG, it illustrates the concern that many of Eumetsat’s 26 member nations have about government spending, even for programs whose value is not questioned, the official said.

“We have a fairly tight schedule for this now and our member states, some of which are having well-known budget issues, have asked to review the spending to see if it could be reduced,” said Ernst Koenemann, Eumetsat’s director of program development.

In an interview, Koenemann said Eumetsat’s ruling council, meeting in Copenhagen June 28-29, gave a broad endorsement of the EPS-SG program. But four nations — Austria, Greece, Portugal and Spain — withheld support for what Eumetsat calls its EPS-SG Preparatory Program.

Eumetsat wanted to spend 46 million euros ($66.7 million) to start early design work on a constellation of polar-orbiting satellites to succeed the current Metop spacecraft. As always, Eumetsat is placing the accent on data continuity, meaning that EPS-SG is to be operational before the last Metop satellite — Metop-C, planned for launch in 2016 — is retired.

Two industrial consortia, led by Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy and Astrium Satellites of France, Germany and Britain, are working on EPS-SG system studies that are scheduled for completion late this year. Eumetsat will select whichever design it deems superior.

Darmstadt, Germany-based Eumetsat has two basic EPS-SG configurations in mind.

The first would be two sets of two satellites each, whose launches would be staggered to provide 15 years of operations. The estimated budget for this system would be 2.3 billion euros for Eumetsat members, and 540 million euros to be paid by the 19-nation European Space Agency (ESA), which has long partnered with Eumetsat in the design and development of new-generation weather satellites.

The second configuration would offer 20 years of continuous in-orbit service by building three sets of two satellites. Adding the third pair would give the system more backup in the event of a launch failure but would increase the cost to Eumetsat to 3.24 billion euros. The cost to ESA would be the same 540 million euros for design and development.

Koenemann pointed out that in addition to providing greater in-orbit security in the event of a launch or satellite failure, the second option would cost slightly less, on an annual basis, than the first.

One of the reasons Eumetsat cannot afford to delay decisions on EPS-SG has to do with ESA’s own budget schedule. ESA’s share of the polar meteorological satellite program will be decided at a conference of ESA government ministers to occur in October or November 2012.

To prepare for that conference, at which ESA’s mid-term budget and program priorities are fixed, ESA has scheduled a meeting of its ruling council for April 2012, meaning Eumetsat must have its own EPS-SG plans settled by then.

Koenemann said Eumetsat will be visiting its four hold-out member nations in the coming weeks and has scheduled a special meeting of its council for Oct. 5 to seek support for the EPS-SG preparatory program.

Eumetsat had less trouble at its Copenhagen council meeting in securing support for its network of specialized facilities that study selected meteorological and environmental phenomena. There are eight Satellite Application Facilities currently.

As Eumetsat becomes more closely associated with the operation of Europe’s broad Global Monitoring for Environment and Security, or GMES, satellite-based Earth observation effort, its Satellite Application Facilities’ role will increase, broadening Eumetsat’s portfolio beyond weather forecasting to environmental surveillance.

At the council meeting, Eumetsat members approved a five-year Satellite Application Facility operations program. The cost is 80 million euros, of which one-third is paid for by the nations hosting the facilities.

Eumetsat also agreed to a slight loosening of its data-access policy while agreeing to allow its members to charge fees for access to data by commercial organizations, which is a major source of revenue for some national meteorological offices.