Europe Makes Earth Observation a Priority

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PARIS — European Space Agency (ESA) officials say that with financial support from the European Union now confirmed, Europe is becoming in Earth observation what NASA already is in planetary exploration: the uncontested world leader.

In April 3 briefings here at ESA’s Estec technology center, agency officials laid out a map that stretched from the meteorological and environmental services now offered from geostationary- and polar-
orbiting satellites operated by the Eumetsat organization, through six already-approved ESA Explorer Earth science missions to be launched between 2008 and 2013, to three applications-oriented satellites co-funded with the European Union and set for launch around 2013.

There is more to come, and soon, according to Volker Liebig, ESA’s Earth observation director.

In an interview, Liebig said the agency is confident that its governments in November will approve construction of three new Sentinel satellites that will be carbon copies of the three Sentinels already being built with ESA and European Union money.

Those satellites — one with a radar imager for land and ocean monitoring; the second with a high-resolution optical imager; and the third carrying an altimeter for ocean and land observation — are part of Europe’s broad Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program.

ESA and the European Commission already have agreed to spend more than 1.1 billion euros ($1.7 billion) to build, launch and operate these three Sentinels.

To reassure users that the services they develop will not be shut down by an in-orbit failure or by the failure to launch a follow-on spacecraft, ESA will ask its governments in November for a budget to build a second copy of each of the three satellites. Also in the package to be requested of ESA governments will be instrument developments for a Sentinel 4 and Sentinel 5 spacecraft.

Liebig said the budget he is seeking for these new spacecraft is between 850 million and 880 million euros.

“Our idea is to order the three duplicate sentinels close enough after we ordered the first three to be able to take advantage of economies from the manufacturers,” Liebig said.

The European Commission has agreed to invest an additional 205 million euros of its own in this so-called GMES Segment 2 once ESA governments have put in their share in November.

“We are launching a succession of 15 Earth observation satellites over the next decade, not including the recurrent Sentinel satellites,” said Mark R. Drinkwater, head of ESA’s Earth observation mission science division.

Unlike NASA or the French space agency, CNES, ESA is not restricted to research and development missions. In Earth observation, it prides itself on building research-only satellites whose successors — sometimes with nearly identical instruments — attract users and blossom into operational services.

The ERS-1, ERS-2 and Envisat radar Earth observation satellites launched in the 1990s are giving way to tomorrow’s Sentinels and Eumetsat’s Metop polar-orbiting spacecraft.

On the research side, ESA has six Earth Explorer missions under construction to investigate Earth’s gravity field, soil moisture and ocean salinity, the polar ice caps, wind profiles, Earth’s magnetic field and cloud composition – the latter with the Japanese space agency, JAXA.

Drinkwater said a seventh Earth Explorer mission will be selected starting next year after an initial competition among six candidates.

Liebig said that given the money he is asking from European governments this fall, it is unclear whether the options he also will present will be accepted.

The first option is to fly a Dutch-built atmospheric chemistry instrument on a satellite that ESA would finance and launch. Keeping the satellite platform small and simple, he said, would enable this mission to be performed at a cost to ESA of just 110 million euros.

The second option is for a Jason-4 ocean-altimetry mission to follow the Jason-2 spacecraft to be launched in June and a planned — but still not fully financed — Jason-3 mission in 2012. If ordered in 2009, Jason-4 could take advantage of ongoing development of ESA’s Cryosat ice-monitoring satellite, to be launched in 2009.

As is the case with the Sentinels, asking the Cryosat prime contractor Astrium Satellites’ German division to build Jason-4 immediately after Cryosat, would bring Jason-4 mission costs down. Liebig said he estimated that the Cryosat-based Jason-4 would cost 140 million to 150 million euros to ESA, with the remaining funds to come from Eumetsat and perhaps the European Commission.

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