Europe Needs a Framework for Earth Observation


Setting space funding priorities is a problem on both sides of the Atlantic. While the United States struggles with whether to keep operating two of the most extraordinary space missions ever undertaken — Voyager and Hubble — Europe is reaching a turning point in 2005 with a key ESA ministerial conference and the definition of the European Union’s 2007-2013 financial package.

It is easy to identify what Europe’s priorities have been in the past. In financial volume, the top priority has been access to space, i.e. launchers and space infrastructure centered on the international space station, which accounted for about 42 percent of the ESA’s 2005 budget. Meanwhile, the satellite sector has been weakened, with many programs cancel ed or delayed in Earth observation, science and telecommunications — all assets in direct service to the citizen.

In that sense, the ends — biosphere knowledge and protection, space exploration, better services for the citizen and science — have taken a back seat to the means.

Human knowledge of Earth systems is far from complete. We lack observation taken on a sustained, systematic and operational basis. In some areas, data collection is decreasing. Although the development of suitable technology and the awareness of the socioeconomic benefits of Earth observation are progressing, in Europe the Earth observation industry is facing severe threats.

ESA plans only a small number of Earth observation missions. The observation industry faces not only technical risk but also complex political and market forces in a sector in which governments are major players. Because of the emphasis on access to space, satellite capabilities are declining and strategic European technologies are at risk of disappearing. Satellite Earth stations receive mostly non-European satellite data. Operational continuity is not assured. Value-added companies face a paucity of European-sourced data and increased vulnerability in data access. Users and government decision-makers face a lack of strategic and critical data, limiting their autonomy.

New directions are needed in space funding. The use of remote sensing data, telecommunications and navigation services will deliver enormous and rapidly increasing benefits to the global economy. Earth observation increasingly is recognized as a public good.

A new strategy for Earth observation must consider science, operational and commercial elements. It should be based upon the following pillars:

Science –A strong emphasis must be on the Earth and the solar system. Earth Science, which is an optional program at ESA, should be a mandatory program allowing industry to invest rationally instead of counting on lobbying or luck — as recently was the case with the selections in the ESA Earth Observation Preparatory Program.

Operations –A coherent overall Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) strategy must be designed. Priority should be given to deploying satellites for ocean and coastal-zone monitoring (where there is no successor for Envisat’s oceanographic payload), risk management and land observation of the Landsat and Spot type, all featuring civil and security applications. Failure to establish a comprehensive observation baseline and commit to continuity of observation systems will hamper the ability to detect and quantify changes and the achievement of treaty targets. Indeed, the fulfillment of international conventions, as well as sustainable development policies, relies on such capabilities. Finally, one could create a defensible business/economic case only if data continuity is assured.

The main segment of commercial space-borne Earth observation today is constituted by high-resolution imaging, whether in the optical or radar domains. The number of existing and planned high-resolution systems in North America, Europe and Asia for the next 10 years is substantial; thus, availability of data seems secure. The situation is more complex in the market for data and services. The Earth observation data market is small by itself. The real market will result from the synergy of Earth observation, positioning and telecommunications systems.

Support for the satellite sector — Access to space is assured in Europe. It remains a worthy goal, but it has cost tremendous amounts of money and eclipsed satellite programs that could be more useful in terms of applications, innovation and employment.

There is no European industrial policy for satellite-derived applications. National optional participation in programs such as GMES and Advanced Research in Telecommunication Systems (Artes) have been gutted in favo r of launch vehicle programs. The situation must be rebalanced.

International collaboration — The need for a large variety and quantity of complementary environmental data to monitor the planet strongly argues for international coordination. The joint ESA-NASA initiative in the science-focused Earth Explorer/Earth System Science Pathfinder framework is an excellent move in this direction. The GEOSS-GMES links should be the next step forward. (GEOSS is the Global Earth Observation System of Systems, an international effort to coordinate Earth observation activity.) It also is encouraging that, at the industry level, links between U.S. and European companies are being established.

Framework –While multisource funding is essential, a single coordinating body must be identified. In Europe, Eumetsat, which has efficiently consolidated the Meteosat program and has begun early work on a third operational generation, is a good model.

Financing and timing –European budgets for Earth science and GMES are reasonably small compared with the benefits they bring. Clearly separated budgets must be established for the science/research element and for the operational. As presented earlier, the budgets specifically allocated to the development of the Earth observation space segment also must be accompanied by budgets for the information and telecommunication infrastructures in order for a proper access to data and a suitable deployment of service to happen.

What we need is a GMES pilot phase integrating these elements, without waiting to identify all the future end users willing to pay to deploy and operate the infrastructure. There should be no illusions: This will remain a public investment for many years to come.

It is time to reassess our space priorities to put the industry more completely at the service of the citizen.

Paul Kamoun is chairman of the European Association of Remote Sensing Companies and Eberhard Parlow is chairman of the European Association of Remote Sensing Laboratories .