The 20-nation Eumetsat organization has approved a new long-term strategy that foresees its gradual mutation from a meteorological agency into Europe’s environmental satellite services operator.

Eumetsat’s core mission of providing operational meteorological observations is being expanded to include low-orbit observation satellites. Negotiations with the European Union could lead to Eumetsat’s selection as the operator for three of the satellite missions planned as part of the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program.

A GMES role would propel Eumetsat into areas that, up to now, have been beyond its primary focus area. GMES’ mandate covers climate change in general, and includes land-surface imaging, ocean imaging and air-quality alerts.

Eumetsat’s ruling council adopted a 25-year strategy July 4 that also forces the agency to seek investment partners to share the burden of the role that Eumetsat has taken on — occasionally by accident.

For example, when a Russian meteorological satellite over the Indian Ocean failed in the mid-1990s, Eumetsat moved one of its older Meteosat geostationary-orbiting satellites into position using a German orbital slot to fill the gap.

Russian authorities say they intend to replace the failed Elektra spacecraft, also known as GOMS — Geostationary Orbiting Meteorological Satellite. But a decade has passed and Eumetsat continues to perform the task.

On July 11, following the arrival of the Meteosat-9 satellite at zero degrees longitude to back up Eumetsat’s Meteosat-8, the Meteosat-7 satellite began to move toward the Indian Ocean to take over from Meteosat-5. It is expected to arrive at its 57.5 degrees east longitude destination in October, after which Meteosat-5 — now operating at 63 degrees east — will be placed into a graveyard orbit.

The Indian government also has geostationary meteorological satellites in place in the region. But Indian authorities continue to resist putting all their weather-satellite data into the global World Weather Watch pool out of concern that rival Pakistan will make use of it.

Eumetsat and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the past have provided each other with stopgap coverage by moving satellites when one or the other suffers an in-orbit loss. But Eumetsat governments, in their new 25-year strategy, say they will not continue to provide Indian Ocean coverage indefinitely.

“The aim is to identify other countries who will commit to the sustained financial responsibility for this service,” the strategy document says.

Mikael Rattenborg, Eumetsat director of operations, said Eumetsat has begun negotiations with the Gulf Cooperation Council, an assembly of Middle Eastern nations, as part of the effort to find other nations willing to share the responsibility with Eumetsat, or take it over entirely.

“We have committed to having Meteosat-7 there until the end of 2008. But our member states have told us they do not want to have permanent responsibility for this,” Rattenborg said in a July 19 interview at Eumetsat headquarters here. “We have been able to do this much because we have funded the Indian Ocean coverage from our previously approved Meteosat Transition Program budget. So we have not had to ask for fresh money from our members.”

Another area in which Eumetsat’s role hinges on finding partners is for ocean altimetry, a research field that has become useful for operational meteorology with the U.S.-French Topex-Poseidon satellite and, more recently, the Jason-1 spacecraft financed by the French space agency, CNES, and NASA.

NASA and CNES joined to help finance the Jason-2 satellite now set for launch in June 2008, and secured NOAA and Eumetsat support for the mission as well. But NASA and CNES officials have said they are not in the business of financing operational missions once the research or scientific phase has passed, and the continuity of post-Jason-2 data remains unclear.

As is the case for all their data needs, meteorologists resist investing in the training and hardware needed to provide and digest new data unless they are assured that there will be no service interruptions. Already the hesitation among the four Jason-2 funding agencies means there is a risk that Jason-1 will fail in orbit before Jason-2 is launched.

Jason-1 was launched in December 2001 on a five-year mission. It already has suffered the loss of one of its redundant telemetry units. All bets are off as to whether it can remain fully operational until Jason-2 arrives in 2008.

Rattenborg said one of Europe’s planned GMES satellites, a spacecraft currently called Sentinel-3, has a Jason-type mission profile. But here too, ESA and the European Commission have yet to stabilize GMES funding to determine what spacecraft can be built, and when.

“Our members have expressed an interest in the long-term continuity of altimetry data, so it’s certainly on our horizon,” Rattenborg said. “The issue now is cooperation. CNES has shown some interest, and the U.S. Navy is considering its long-term altimetry strategy. And of course there is the GMES possibility. Right now all we know for certain is that we need a Jason-3 in 2013.”