— The European Commission’s Jan. 28 commitment of 205 million euros ($263 million) for construction of Earth observation satellites being managed by the European Space Agency (ESA) caps a multiyear effort on behalf of
‘s GMES/Kopernikus space-based environment and security initiative.

ESA and the commission combined have committed a total of nearly 2.3 billion euros to GMES/Kopernikus. The money will go mainly to building two models each of three types of Sentinel observation spacecraft for radar and optical land and ocean monitoring.

The first three Sentinels were ordered in 2008 from prime contractors ThalesAlenia Space and Astrium Satellites for a total of 729 million euros. The “B units,” intended to be identical to the first, will be placed under contract in the coming months, and ESA expects the cost will be 50-55 percent lower than the initial models, according to Josef Aschbacher, head of ESA’s GMES Space Office in Frascati, Italy.

In a Feb. 4 interview, Aschbacher said that during the competition to build the first Sentinel models, the contractors were ordered to include a price for a second unit. He said ESA is using the B-unit price quotes as the basis for the negotiations that are now under way.

The Sentinel 1 radar satellite under construction by ThalesAlenia Space is scheduled for launch in late 2011, with an in-orbit design life of seven years but enough fuel and other consumables to operate for 12 years. The identical Sentinel 1B is scheduled for launch in 2015.

The Sentinel 2 wide-swath optical land-monitoring satellite, under construction by Astrium Satellites, is scheduled for launch in 2012, with the Sentinel 2B to be placed into orbit in 2016.

Sentinel 3, an oceanography and land-monitoring satellite with ThalesAlenia Space as prime contractor, is also to be launched in 2012, with the identical 3B to be lofted in 2016.

The European Commission agreed to release its expected 205 million euros in funding Jan. 28 with the signing of an updated GMES/Kopernikus agreement by ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain and Heinz Zourek, director-general of the European Commission Directorate for
and Industry.

The commission’s final funding tranche had been awaiting a decision by ESA government ministers to fund ESA’s remaining share of this phase of GMES/Kopernikus. The ESA money was approved in November.

Volker Liebig, ESA’s director of Earth observation, said there was very little controversy about GMES/Kopernikus during the ESA meeting, where the ministers also approved a larger-than-expected budget for the next generation of meteorological satellites to be managed by the Eumetsat organization of

In a Jan. 29 interview, Liebig said Earth observation programs received 1.9 billion euros in budget commitments at the ESA ministerial conference in November. The support was so broad that ESA will now be paying a larger share of the development of the meteorological satellites, called Meteosat Third Generation, than had been negotiated by ESA and Eumetsat.

“This is of course an agreeable position to be in,” Liebig said. “Earth observation is now the most important sector of the agency in terms of member states’ future financial commitments.”

said his agency is managing GMES/Kopernikus in such a way that the European Commission funds are kept separate from the ESA money. This is necessary because the
, Belgium-based commission does not use ESA’s geographic-return rules, which guarantee that each nation will see most of its investment returned in the form of contracts to its industry.

In addition, European Commission funding is open to 38 nations – the 27 European Union nations plus 11 others that have struck deals giving them access to commission programs.

“We have different pots of funds, and two sets of contracts,” Aschbacher said. “When we send out an ITT [invitation to tender] to industry, we have already decided whether the contract in question will be ESA or commission funded.”

The addition of the European Commission funding – equivalent to about 28 percent of the total so far for GMES – also allows GMES/Kopernikus program managers to more easily manage cash flow. The commission funding is available as needed, while ESA’s own financial system is often in a feast-or-famine position because contract demands are lesser or greater than the annual budgets agreed to by ESA member states.

“When we are short of ESA funds, we can use [commission] money, and vice versa,” Aschbacher said. “But it has to even out in the end to correspond to where the money comes from, ESA or the commission.”