PARIS — A high-ranking European Commission official told users and builders of satellite Earth observation systems Sept. 27 that they should abandon hope that the commission will fund a multiyear environment-monitoring program at previously proposed levels.
The official said Europe’s Earth observation community should become less satellite-centric and adapt to a world in which unmanned aerial vehicles, crowd sourcing and other in-situ observation techniques make satellites less indispensible than they once were.
In remarks here at the Space Days conference organized by Liege Space Center and Wallonie Espace, a grouping of regional space companies, Jean-Paul Malingreau said placing satellites at the center of an Earth observation effort is yesterday’s thinking.
Malingreau, adviser for scientific foresight and policy anticipation to the director-general of the commission’s Joint Research Center — a big user of satellite Earth observation data — said Europe’s Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program will almost certainly shrink from its expected funding level.
The commission, which is the executive arm of the 27-nation European Union, had proposed that GMES receive 5.8 billion euros ($7.5 billion) in the commission’s next seven-year budget program, which begins in 2014.
Faced with budget pressure, the commission subsequently proposed that GMES be funded by some separate mechanism outside the seven-year package. How that would work remains the subject of debate as the commission and European Union member states debate the funding package.
The 20-nation European Space Agency () has developed the GMES program’s flagship Sentinel satellites. ESA and the commission together have already spent some 2.4 billion euros on the space component of GMES, while other monies have been committed to spurring a broad array of GMES services.
The commission is expected to settle on its final seven-year budget by early 2013 at the latest. Despite more than a year during which members of the European Parliament, ESA and individual European governments protested the removal of GMES from the seven-year package, the program’s status remains unclear.
Malingreau cautioned that he has no direct role in determining what happens to the program. He expressed some optimism that “things are happening” at the commission with respect to GMES, but said the final package “will not be as grand as the original idea.”
“It is not zero or one, or a decision to do GMES or not,” Malingreau said. “Everyone initially was depressed, as though they had confronted a wall,” when the commission removed GMES from the multiyear funding package. “Now people are seeing a way around the wall. … But maybe [funding] will not be on the scale that we dreamed.”
Sitting on the same panel, ESA’s Josef Aschbacher was visibly discomfited by Malingreau’s remarks, and said there is good reason for GMES backers to be concerned about the commission’s inability to move on the issue.
“I don’t think it’s guaranteed at all” that GMES will receive the kind of support that had been expected, said Aschbacher, who is head of ESA’s GMES Space Office.
ESA had already tried to pressure the commission by saying the agency, which owns the first Sentinel satellites until they are in orbit — then the commission becomes the owner — would refuse to launch them unless the commission committed to financing their operation.
ESA subsequently agreed to launch the first Sentinel in mid-2013, and to prepare for the launch starting now, without any such commitment. ESA officials said they could not conceive of a situation in which the same European governments that spent some 3 billion euros to develop a system later decide not to use it.
“It’s like buying a car and having it delivered to your door and then deciding not to pay for gasoline and insurance,” Aschbacher said. “This is crazy.”
GMES was supposed to follow a model that ESA has established with Europe’s Eumetsat meteorological satellite organization of Darmstadt, Germany. ESA designs and pays for most of the first models of new-generation Eumetsat satellites, with Eumetsat in a minority investor’s role. Eumetsat then takes charge of the financing and operations of subsequent models.
Roberto Aceti, managing director of Antwerp Space, a unit of satellite builder OHB AG of Bremen, Germany, said ESA appears to have no problem winning support for meteorological satellites. He said GMES is running into trouble because neither industry nor the commission has created GMES-related services that are so highly valued that governments find the money for them.
“These services are not as mature as meteorological services,” Aceti said. “That is why there is confusion on how to fund GMES. The question is: Why are these services not maturing at the speed we had hoped? The commission needs to be the anchor tenant for GMES, but both the commission and industry need to interrogate themselves.”