PARIS — Europe’s ambitious Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program – multiple Earth observation satellites and missions with diverse funding sources and owners – has long seemed vaguely defined and difficult to implement. But it has begun to take formal shape on the strength of continued support from the 27-nation European Union’s executive commission.

With the sustained backing of Commission Vice President GuenterVerheugen and the willingness of European Space Agency (ESA) governments to go beyond their normal research role to fund recurrent-model GMES satellites, the program is on track at least through 2013. After that, it will be up to a new set of European Commission managers to create a long-term budget line for GMES.

GMES is intended “to ensure the continuous availability of operational Earth observation data,” according to a commission proposal reviewed May 29 by European Union and ESA government ministers and now being reviewed by the European Parliament. “The main users are policy makers.”

But even if governments are the main customers, development of GMES is viewed by the commission as a way of stimulating technology development in
and, over time, creating a commercial sector as Earth observation data access becomes less expensive and more widely available.

GMES will lean on spacecraft built by individual European governments and will use European and non-European commercial satellite data. It will also include input from space-based sensors operated by
‘s Eumetsat meteorological satellite organization, whose future role in GMES is now acknowledged as central by the commission and by ESA.

current Earth observation program is divided into three segments. The first is ESA’s long-standing role as designer and co-funder of Eumetsat’sMeteosat and Metop meteorological satellites, whose operational utility has long been proven. The second segment, called Earth Explorers, funds science-focused Earth observation satellites that are not intended to be built in series.

The third segment is called Earth Watch, where three GMES-dedicated Sentinel satellites are now under construction. Duplicate models of each of the first three Sentinel spacecraft were approved in 2008 by ESA and by the European Commission, assuring future users who invest in Sentinel-related services the data sources will not end when a given satellite fails in orbit or is retired. Sentinel 1 is a C-band radar spacecraft, Sentinel 2 is a medium-resolution optical sensor and Sentinel 3, which carries an altimeter, is for ocean and land monitoring. Sentinels 4 and 5 are payloads expected to be launched aboard Eumetsat geostationary- and polar-orbiting satellites.

ESA is paying about 60 percent of the current total investment of around 3 billion euros ($4.2 billion) in GMES, with the commission financing the rest. ESA’s financing focuses on the satellites themselves, with a small funding complement for development of GMES services. The commission’s investment is more evenly weighted between space and in-situ hardware, and promotion of services.

As NASA and the French space agency, CNES, have proven with the Jason ocean-altimetry satellites, space agencies like to focus on research and development; they resist funding multiple versions of the same hardware, preferring to leave that to those with an ongoing need for the data, whether it be the private sector or meteorological satellite organizations.

The same is true of ESA. Nevertheless, the agency agreed to pay for duplicates of the first three Sentinel satellites after concluding that GMES probably could not reach the goal of being financed by user contributions early enough to assure data continuity between the first Sentinels and their successors.

The so-called B-units for the first three Sentinels are expected to cost 40-50 percent less than first models. Josef Aschbacher, head of ESA’s GMES Space Office at the agency’s Esrin facility in Frascati, Italy, said June 4 that negotiations with ThalesAlenia Space, prime contractor for Sentinels 1 and 3 and Astrium Satellites, prime contractor for Sentinel 2, are expected to conclude in time to submit the final contracts for approval by ESA’s Industrial Policy Committee late this year.

The first three Sentinels are expected to be launched in 2011 and 2012.

Concerned that the current commission budget provides insufficient seed money to develop GMES services between now and the next seven-year commission budget, which starts in 2014, the commission has proposed to spend an additional 115.5 million euros between 2011 and 2013 to “top up” the current funds dedicated to developing GMES services, particularly for land-based applications, the commission says in the proposal.

Now before the European Parliament, the proposal says land applications, such as high-resolution urban maps for emergency services and data on soil cover and composition, need a further push to assure that products and services are available well before the next seven-year European Commission budget is set. This budget is expected to include a specific line for funding GMES and other space programs.

“Up to now it has been research, but it is now entering the operational phase,” Verheugen said in a May 29 press briefing following the ministerial meeting, which included European Union and ESA governments. Verheugen insisted that GMES will not replace existing national Earth observation programs, but will “fill in the existing gaps” in data sets.

said he has ordered that the commission produce credible estimates before the end of this year of the costs of GMES for the next European Commission funding period of 2014-2020. Verheugen’s tenure at the commission is likely to end well before then, but he said he wants to put cost figures on the record to avoid problems after the current commission leadership is gone.

“I don’t want to leave this behind me,” Verheugen said. “I want to avoid mistakes in the past that have happened with technology programs. We need to get the costs clearly understood. This is a highly sensitive subject, Earth observation, where normally the defense community has had a monopoly.”