The European Space Agency (ESA) is bracing for aftershocks from the European debt crisis in the form of demands from some of its member governments for program stretch-outs and possible refusals to pay previously committed amounts.

Thanks mainly to the large Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) project and to a series of Earth observation research satellites called Earth Explorers, Earth observation has overtaken launch vehicles as ESA’s single biggest funding line, accounting for an estimated 708.4 million euros ($868 million) in the 2010 budget — or nearly 19 percent of the agency’s total planned spending.

“I would expect that Earth observation will have to pay a certain tribute” to the broader European government-debt problem, Volker Liebig, ESA’s Earth observation director, said June 28. “What our member states need now is that spending be stretched to fit within what they can afford. We expect to have lower affordability over the next three or four years. For example, we might need to delay the 7th and 8th Earth Explorer missions.”

ESA was able to purchase its second round of three Sentinel radar and optical satellites under GMES for 45 percent less than the virtually identical original models by committing to them while the first were still under construction. Liebig is urging the European Commission, which is funding GMES along with ESA, to seek similar savings by ordering certain components for third versions of the same satellites. In addition to saving money, he said this would give confidence to GMES users that the system’s data will be provided on a continuous basis and not be subject to shut-offs in the event of a satellite failure.

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.