PARIS — European government ministers on Nov. 25 gave pro forma endorsement to Europe’s financially strapped satellite navigation and Earth observation projects but offered no more than vague encouragement that others continue to seek the necessary funding.
The ministers also expressed support for a space situational awareness program that would enable Europe to track in-orbit objects over its territory, help forecast space weather from solar activity and defend satellites against impacts from space debris. But here too they provided no details on how and when such a system would be created.
Held in Brussels, Belgium, the Space Council, which gathers ministers from the 27-nation European Union (EU) and the 18-nation European Space Agency (), added the EU’s backing to an existing ESA policy that European governments should launch their satellites on European rockets.
The European attempt to duplicate the U.S. government policy, which restricts even unclassified, civil U.S. government satellites to U.S. launchers in all but exceptional cases, was made part of ESA policy several years ago. But unlike the U.S. policy it remains nonbinding on individual governments.
Most European governments already launch their satellites on Europe’s heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket. When Europe begins operations of the medium-lift Soyuz vehicle and the small Vega rocket from the European spaceport in French Guiana, these governments will have less reason to launch elsewhere.
The resolution adopted by the Nov. 25 meeting asks all European government agencies “to consider as a high priority the use of launchers developed in Europe.”
The lack of a firm policy committing all European governments to make European vehicles the first choice has bothered ESA, and particularly the French government and Europe’slaunch consortium, even if only a few government satellites go elsewhere.
The Italian government in November placed into orbit the last of its four Cosmo-Skymed radar Earth observation satellites, to be used for military and civil/commercial purposes. All four were launched aboard U.S.2 rockets. Italy also launched, in 2009, a military telecommunications satellite aboard a Sea Launch rocket, then operated by U.S., Russian and Ukrainian companies and based in the United States.
Belgian Science Minister Sabine Laruelle, who co-chaired the Space Council with Giuseppe Pizza, Italy’s state minister for research, said in a press briefing that the buy-European encouragement applies only to the public sector. Pizza said during the briefing that the policy should be viewed as also encouraging Europe’s launch vehicle operator to keep prices competitive.
“There has to be a reasonable price,” Pizza said. “Otherwise, this policy will have no more value than lip service.”
In recent months, several European government agencies, including the European Commission and Europe’s Eumetsat meteorological satellite organization, have complained that their decisions to guarantee business to Europe’s Ariane 5 or the Europeanized Soyuz rocket have left them stuck with prices that are at the upper end of what is commercially available.
The ministers evoked, but elected to tiptoe around, the issue of how the European Commission was going to find the money to go with its increasing power over space policy. The Galileo satellite navigation system and the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) Earth observation project are both in need of cash starting in 2011, and the European Commission is at pains to find a sponsor.
Especially for Galileo, the issue may result in a confrontation between the European Parliament, which includes Galileo and GMES backers in its ranks, and the commission as the 2011 commission budget is brought up for approval.
The resolution adopted by the ministers also makes a passing reference to a proposal that the European Commission start paying a share of the upkeep of the Guiana Space Center spaceport alongside ESA, the French government and Arianespace.
The resolution asks European governments — presumably including the European Commission — “to explore issues related to their possible participation in launcher-related exploration activities.”
One European government official who attended the ministers’ debate Nov. 25 said even this passing reference should be viewed as a step forward. French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 raised the notion of the Guiana spaceport being classed as a strategic “European infrastructure” and thus eligible for European Commission funding.
“The idea of course is that the commission would set aside funds, starting with its 2014 budget, to help finance the launch base,” this official said. “But this had to be couched in vague language to win the support of 26 governments.”
The ministers said the international space station should be viewed as the first step in a long space exploration program in which Europe would play a role with international partners.
Simonetta di Pippo, ESA’s space station director, said the ministers’ resolution is the first time the station has been included in a text from European Union political authorities. “This may not look like much, but getting a political endorsement like this is a real boost to our program,” di Pippo said in a Nov. 24 interview.