LILLE, France — France is threatening to withhold financial support for a suite of European space programs to be decided by European Space Agency (ESA) governments in November unless ESA finds a way to secure support for an ocean-altimetry satellite that has been a source of specific friction between France and Germany, according to European government officials.
French officials say they cannot accept the possibility that ocean-altimetry data, gathered without interruption since the early 1990s by a series of satellites financed by the United States and France, would be interrupted at a time when Europe is advertising its political commitment to operational Earth observation data for environmental and security uses.
Unable to secure the needed financing for a Jason-3 altimetry satellite despite the apparent backing of the
and European weather-satellite organizations,
has decided to force ESA into the debate by holding French support for multiple ESA programs hostage to the Jason-3 issue.
“We are not just going to watch this fall by the wayside,” Yannickd’Escatha, president of the French space agency, CNES, said in a Sept. 17 interview. “It is not my nature to want to block things or pound the table, but the user community has been clear that data continuity is critical to our Earth observation effort. We are all agreed that serving users is our most important goal. I am not going to abandon the effort.”
is ESA’s biggest financial contributor. Few of the big-ticket programs on space exploration, future manned spaceflight, launch vehicles or Earth observation that ESA wants approved in November can likely be funded sufficiently without substantial French support.
The same is true for
, ESA’s second-largest contributor. German government officials have said that accepting the U.S.-French Jason-3 mission as a European program would set into motion a cascade of demands from other Earth observation systems for similar financial backing.
ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain, who already is fighting numerous unrelated battles as he tries to win support for the overall package the will presented to ESA governments at a Nov. 25-26 meeting in
, made clear in a Sept. 17 interview that he did not need
Jason-3 problem now placed at his doorstep as well. Dordain said he sympathizes with both the French and German positions, but that his job now is to resolve the issue so that it does not undermine the foundation of the multibillion-euro program he is assembling for the November conference.
“I fully understand the French view that we cannot in good conscience trumpet our devotion to data continuity in Kopernikus/GMES and at the same time threaten ocean altimetry,” Dordain said here during the Forum GMES 2008 conference, organized before the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security, or GMES, program was renamed Kopernikus.
“But I also understand other delegations’ concerns that this would set a precedent that would be a problem,” Dordain said. “My job now is to solve the problem, one way or another. But if you ask me how this will be done, I must say at this point I don’t know.”
Jason-3 would continue ocean-altimetry observations made on a continuous basis since 1992, when the U.S.-French Topex-Poseidon satellite was launched. It was followed in 2001 with the Jason-1 satellite, and last June’s launch of Jason-2.
has agreed to contribute an existing satellite platform for Jason-3, free of charge, and also has agreed to contribute engineering expertise for the project. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its European counterpart, the Eumetsat organization of
, also have signaled their support for a Jason-3 mission that would be launched in 2012 or 2013.
Despite those commitments the Jason-3 effort is about 46 million euros ($65 million) short of the estimated 238 million euros it is expected to cost, a figure that includes the cost of operating the satellite after it is launched.
This 46-million-euro gap has been the subject of more debate at Eumetsat, ESA and the commission of the 27-nation European Union in the past six months than most billion-dollar programs.
CNES originally hoped that the European Commission, which is gradually taking charge of
‘s Kopernikus/GMES efforts, would find the missing 46 million euros.
European Commission officials have said they are loathe to confront the commission’s biggest member, Germany, on the issue, especially since Jason-3 is rightfully viewed as an issue that should be resolved at NOAA, Eumetsat and CNES.
But several months of lobbying by ocean-services specialists involved in Kopernikus/GMES apparently have had an effect.
Verheugen, the commission’s vice president and head of its enterprise and industry directorate, said here Sept. 16 that he is in favor of financing Jason-3 as part of Kopernikus‘ operational budget, which is scheduled to begin in 2013.
“I have quite strong sympathy for integrating Jason” into the program, Verheugen said during a press briefing here.
Government officials said Verheugen is ready to make a non-binding commitment that Jason-3 operational costs, estimated at 25 million euros over the satellite’s five-year life, will be funded from the Kopernikus operating budget. The commitment is non-binding because Verheugen is unlikely to be in his current post when the commission’s next seven-year financial package, to take effect in 2013, is approved.
Despite the uncertainty of this arrangement, Jason-3 backers say it is sufficient for them to assume that, instead of needing 46 million euros, they now need to find only 21 million euros.
Government officials have said the commission recently has offered to seek a tax waiver for a portion of its Kopernikus budget through a complicated mechanism that will make 7 million euros available for Jason-3 construction.
If successful, that would leave 14 million euros left to secure between now and the end of the meeting of ESA governments in late November.