European Weather Program Hits Another Snag

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PARIS — Europe’s Eumetsat meteorological satellite organization on Dec. 1 failed to receive full go-ahead approval for its next-generation Meteosat system when Portugal declined to allow the program to start, Eumetsat officials said.

Portugal’s resistance went so far as to prohibit those nations that have approved the Meteosat Third Generation (MTG) system from funding the program in its early stages on their own, without Portuguese investment, officials said.

The development is the latest in a long line of hiccups for MTG, a six-satellite constellation of imaging and sounding satellites scheduled to operate in geostationary orbit starting around 2017.

Meeting at Eumetsat’s headquarters in Darmstadt, Germany, the organization’s ruling council received full MTG endorsement by 22 of Eumetsat’s 26 nations. This support, which includes Eumetsat’s biggest contributors — Germany, Britain, Italy and France — amounted to 86 percent of the 2.37 billion euros ($3.2 billion) that Eumetsat has budgeted for MTG.

Another 1.258 billion euros in MTG satellite development is being paid by the 18-nation European Space Agency (ESA).


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Eumetsat operates by consensus when voting on mandatory programs such as MTG. In this case, due to the delays the next-generation system had previously encountered because of German protests over work-share distribution, Eumetsat sought its members’ approval to permit work to start in January even without 100 percent approval.

Angiolo Rolli, Eumetsat’s director of administration, said the four nations that have not signed the necessary documents are Belgium, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland.

In a Dec. 1 interview, Rolli said Spain, which is among the big Eumetsat contributors, and Switzerland have indicated that their approvals will take a few more weeks to wrap up administrative details, allowing MTG work to start in January.

Belgium, which in recent months has been buffeted by a succession of crises related to conflicts between its Dutch-speaking and French-speaking regions, told Eumetsat that its current government was not in a position to make a long-term commitment.

But Belgium agreed to sign a waiver permitting MTG to start with the investment of the other Eumetsat nations, with the understanding that the program could not spend money from Belgium’s expected contribution until it had been approved.

Portugal, which is widely viewed in Europe as perhaps the most fragile economy now that Greece and Ireland have received European Union support to prevent a default on their bonds, declined to sign a similar waiver.

”It is extremely important for the MTG program activities to start as soon as possible,” Eumetsat Director-General Lars Prahm said in a Dec. 1 statement.

Rolli said Eumetsat’s bylaws appear to offer no way to get around the resistance of even one relatively small contributor to begin a mandatory program. He nonetheless said Eumetsat remains confident that Portugal in the coming weeks will either approve MTG or sign the documents needed to let the program start anyway.

The council also approved:

  • A near-real-time distribution system for data from the microwave scatterometer aboard India’s Oceansat-2 Earth observation satellite, which measures low-altitude winds over the ocean, as part of a widening data-exchange agreement with the Indian Space Research Organisation.
  • Final preparations for the launch of the Metop-B polar-orbiting weather satellite in mid-2012 aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket operated by the French-Russian Starsem joint venture, and a late-2012 launch of the third Meteosat Second Generation geostationary-orbiting satellite as a co-passenger on a European Ariane 5 rocket.
  • A series of cooperation agreements, still to be negotiated, with “direct-readout station operators,” meaning ground stations capable of providing fast access to data from the U.S. National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) Preparatory Project and Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS)-1 polar-orbiting meteorological satellites, to be launched in 2011 and 2014.
  • A data-exchange agreement with the Korea Meteorological Administration including data from South Korea’s recently launched COMS-1 telecommunications and meteorological satellite.
  • The appointment of Alain Ratier, now deputy director of Meteo France, to succeed Prahm as Eumetsat’s director general, effective Aug. 1.