PARIS — Space activity among European governments in 2006 was notable for both what happened and what did not happen.
The events that occurred were mainly positive, while the events that were supposed to occur but did not reflect the delays that often afflict multilateral European government programs.
The October launch of Europe’s first polar-orbiting meteorological satellite, Metop-1, which includes instruments provided by the United States as part of a joint U.S.-European effort in collecting weather and environmental data from low Earth orbit, was both a technology challenge and a political one.
U.S. and European government officials have spoken for years about better coordinating their Earth observation programs to reduce duplication and save taxpayer money. It remains a slow process, but Metop-1 and the initial Jason-1 and Jason-2 ocean-altimetry satellites are examples of the cooperation taking shape.
Ernst Koenemann, director of programs at the Darmstadt, Germany-based Eumetsat, said that while no formal agreement has been struck, Eumetsat and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are close to an accord to divide responsibility for a Jason-3 satellite to assure that program’s operational continuity.
Yannick d’Escatha, president of the French space agency, CNES, which provided the satellite platform for the Jason-1 and Jason-2 satellites, might be able to perform a similar function for Jason-3, but without actually financing the project. D’Escatha said CNES has a spare Proteus satellite platform that might be used for Jason-3, assuming the program’s financing is secured elsewhere.
The German government under Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2006 signaled a renewed support for space spending and signed agreements for the construction of the TanDem-X radar observation satellite and a preliminary agreement on the EnMap multispectral observation spacecraft.
The Spanish government, in an unusual agreement with the European Space Agency (ESA), announced that it would finance a national Earth observation satellite using ESA as technical manager. Tentatively named Seosat, the satellite is scheduled for launch in 2010.
A small Spanish company, Deimos Space SL of Madrid, contracted with small-satellite specialist Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. of Britain to build an agriculture-monitoring satellite to be integrated into Surrey’s Disaster Monitoring Constellation. The constellation features satellites in orbit provided by the governments of Algeria, China, Nigeria, Turkey and Britain.
Earth observation is also an example of what did not happen in Europe in 2006. ESA and the European Commission — the executive arm of the 25-nation European Union — have agreed to partner in space development, with the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) project as a showcase example of the partnership.
But while ESA has secured the necessary funding to build a series of Sentinel observation satellites, the commission has struggled to finance its share of the funding. As the year ended, it was unclear whether the two institutions’ combined resources would permit construction of the first three Sentinel satellites, as planned.
Volker Liebig, ESA’s Earth observation director, said ESA continues to debate the merits of starting three satellites against the non-negotiable demand by users that whatever satellites are built have guaranteed successors.
“It is clear that users require data continuity or they will not invest on the ground,” Liebig said. “We have more work to do with the commission to see what we can do and on what schedule.”
Europe’s space priorities have evolved over the years, but one constant in the past two decades has been the priority given for launch vehicles.
The heavy-lift Ariane 5 ECA rocket, whose development was financed by ESA, has now established its reliability and ESA spending on its development has declined. But two new rockets — the Russian-built Soyuz and the Italian-led Vega — are in development and scheduled to begin launching in 2008.
Both the Soyuz and Vega schedules may yet slip, but the Soyuz launch pad at Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport, in French Guiana, is nearing completion, with more than 200 Russian launch-site engineers expected to arrive in mid-2007.
The development of Vega, an entirely new rocket, passed several milestones in 2006, culminating in the Nov. 30 firing of the P-80 first-stage engine.
The German-Russian company Eurockot Launch Services GmbH returned to flight in July with the launch of South Korea’s Kompsat-2 Earth observation satellite. The launch was the first since the October 2005 failure that destroyed an ESA environmental research satellite.
Europe’s space science program is often pointed to as ESA’s most notable achievement, along with Ariane rockets. But while the program has suffered few failures in recent years, ESA governments in 2006 decided to appoint an external Science Program Review Team to take a critical look at the program’s management.
ESA Science Director David Southwood has repeatedly warned that the program is operating at the limit of its budget capacity and cannot afford to add new missions at this time. Other space science managers in Europe disagree and say Europe cannot afford to wait a decade before deciding to approve new missions.
The outside review, led by Reinder van Duinen, former president of the European Science Foundation, began its work in May and is expected to submit its final report in March. Its conclusions may affect when ESA schedules its call for proposals for its Cosmic Vision 2015-2025 program, and when the missions included in this period move toward production.