Europe Defers Start on New Polar-orbit Weather Satellites

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PARIS — Europe’s meteorological satellite organization, Eumetsat, has again been unable to secure its member governments’ full support to start work on a next-generation polar-orbiting weather satellite system and will try anew in July, Eumetsat officials said.

The 27-nation Eumetsat said it has nonetheless increased the guaranteed contributions to the program, to 83 percent of the total compared with 55 percent previously.

Eumetsat Director-General Alain Ratier said the Darmstadt, Germany-based organization remains confident that it will be able to begin preparatory work on its second-generation European Polar System, or EPS-SG, when its council meets July 5-6.

In a written response to Space News inquiries Feb. 8, Ratier said Eumetsat’s ruling council delivered a firm verdict at its Jan. 31 meeting on the payload instruments that EPS-SG would carry.

The instrument decision had been complicated by the fact that the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is Eumetsat’s counterpart, informed the European agency in late November that NOAA’s budget prospects would prevent a U.S. contribution to EPS-SG.

Of particular concern to Eumetsat was the loss of a U.S.-provided advanced microwave sounder instrument. This will now need to be developed in Europe and financed by the 19-nation European Space Agency (ESA).

Three other instruments that NOAA had hoped to provide will not be replaced “in the current economic context,” Ratier said.

EPS-SG is designed as a two-satellite system with sounder and imager instruments carried on separate spacecraft. To save money, Eumetsat hopes its member governments will agree to finance two, and perhaps three, sets of satellites to provide 15 to 20 years of continuous coverage starting in 2019.

The EPS-SG budget is tentatively estimated at about 2.85 billion euros ($3.7 billion) over 15 years, with about 20 percent of that to be paid by ESA, which will oversee design and development of the satellites.

ESA governments are scheduled to meet in November to vote on the EPS-SG program.

To prepare for that meeting, Eumetsat had promised to deliver to ESA, by March, the list of instruments to fly on the EPS-SG satellites. At its Jan. 31 council meeting, Eumetsat governments approved nine instruments, including two to be provided by the French space agency, CNES, and one by the German Aerospace Center, DLR.

The remaining six instruments would be paid for and developed by ESA.

Eumetsat governments will decide on a 10th instrument — an Ice Cloud Imager — at their July meeting.

“ESA has what it needs to define their program for the development of the satellites,” Ratier said.

ESA’s presumed approval of the program in November will be subject to Eumetsat’s own final EPS-SG go-ahead for the program in 2013. To facilitate that decision, Eumetsat in July 2011 asked its members to approve a preparatory program.

Citing financial hardship, four governments declined to endorse the preparatory effort at the July 2011 council meeting. Eumetsat returned with a similar request for the Jan. 31 meeting, and found that nine of its 27 governments were unable to contribute.

The EPS-SG preparatory work, scheduled to run from 2012 to 2014, is budgeted at just 40 million euros. But the entire EPS-SG effort is classed as a mandatory program at Eumetsat, meaning it cannot begin without unanimous endorsement.

The nine holdout nations, while accounting for just 17 percent of the proposed budget, will all need to be brought aboard for EPS-SG’s preparatory program to start.

“I do not want to put the spotlight on any individual country,” Ratier said. “Suffice it to say that all our member states are facing budget restrictions at the moment. These are extremely difficult financial times for all our member states and we are aware of this. On the other hand, our council is also aware of the mandatory nature, and high benefits, of the EPS-SG program.”