European Commission Doles out Down Payment for Initial GMES Launchers

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PARIS — The European Commission has transferred nearly 104 million euros ($151 million) to the European Space Agency (ESA) for management of Europe’s flagship Earth observation program, ESA officials said June 10.

The commission’s latest investment in the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) effort was announced during a June 8-9 meeting of ESA’s ruling council in Noordwijk, Netherlands.

When added to the more than 2 billion euros in financing already provided by ESA and the European Commission, the latest funding tranche will be used to carry the multibillion-euro GMES effort through mid-2014, when the commission is expected to release further funding.

In the shorter term, the new money will enable ESA, as manager of the space segment of GMES, to make down payments on launch vehicles for the second series of Sentinel Earth observation satellites. The Sentinel spacecraft constitute the core space component of GMES and are scheduled for launch in 2013 and 2014.

Volker Liebig, ESA’s director of Earth observation, said June 10 that ESA will use the commission’s new investment to secure the rockets that will be used to launch the Sentinel 1B, Sentinel 2B and Sentinel 3B satellites starting in 2015.

These satellites are duplicates of the Sentinel 1A, Sentinel 2A and Sentinel 3A satellites under construction at Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy, and Astrium Satellites of France, Germany and Britain.

The commission has had trouble financing its full GMES commitment. Its previous investment was enough to build the so-called B-unit satellites, but not enough to launch them.

Adding 104 million euros will not be enough to launch the three satellites on separate vehicles, but it will permit ESA to lock in prices while waiting for the commission’s next budget cycle to begin in 2014.

The A-unit satellites are about six months behind their initial production schedule. To partly cover the delay, ESA next year will be asking its 18 member governments to fund another year or two of operations of ESA’s Envisat Earth observation satellite.

Launched in 2002 on a five-year mission, Envisat was to have been retired in 2013 with the launch of the first Sentinels. Envisat has been moved to a fuel-saving orbit and will now be maintained in operation through 2014.

ESA estimates it costs about 45 million euros per year to operate the 8,000-kilogram Envisat, a figure that includes handling the high volume of data that pours into ESA’s Esrin facility in Frascati, Italy. ESA will seek funding for further Envisat operations at a late-2012 meeting of its member governments’ ministers, Liebig said.

With the next couple of years of GMES funding now in place, ESA and the commission have two major program items to resolve — what funding should be allotted by the commission to annual GMES operations, including the replacement of aging satellites, and who will own the GMES system.

Liebig said ESA and the commission have reached an agreement that GMES will cost about 600 million euros per year to operate and maintain.

“Each side has validated this figure to the extent possible, and understanding that certain costs are indicative. They cannot be predicted so far in advance,” Liebig said. “It is certainly not possible to foresee launch dates so far in advance. But the overall figure has been agreed to by us and the commission.”

Liebig said ESA is willing to act as the commission’s delegate for GMES system operations related to the space segment, but that it is the commission, not ESA, that should be GMES’s owner.

So-called governance issues have been a subject of lengthy debate not only for GMES, but also for Europe’s other flagship space program, the Galileo positioning, timing and navigation satellite system, which is still in development.

Liebig said the commission is likely to resolve the ownership questions for GMES at the same time as it allocates resources for GMES operations.

GMES satellites and ground segment are designed to work in an elaborate network providing Earth observation data for emergency services, land monitoring, maritime surveillance and atmospheric observation. It is Europe’s contribution to the proposed Global Earth Observation System of Systems, being organized by the Group on Earth observations of Geneva and its 70-plus member nations including the United States and most European nations.

 

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