Funding Constraints May Cause ESA To Scale Back Earth Observation Plans

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  Space News Business

Funding Constraints May Cause ESA To Scale Back Earth Observation Plans

By PETER B. de SELDING
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 23 September 2008
04:40 pm ET






LILLE, France — European Space Agency (ESA) officials are preparing to revise downward their plans for new investment in Earth observation and other space programs in the face of budget constraints coming from several ESA member states.

A multibillion-dollar program to be decided by ESA governments in late-November looks increasingly unrealistic, although ESA officials say that to date they have not had to abandon a single program. Instead, they are crafting ways to spread out the spending to make it easier for cash-strapped governments to pay, even if this means ultimately paying more for each budget item.

One of the showcase items scheduled for approval at the Nov. 25-26 meeting of ESA government ministers in
The Hague
,
Netherlands
, is Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES), recently renamed Kopernikus.

The European Commission already has committed 1.2 billion euros ($1.7 billion) to this program, which will create a network of new and existing Earth observation satellites to put data within easy access for commercial, civil government and military users in
Europe
.

Government officials say up to 40 satellites expected to be in orbit in 2013 will be part of the Kopernikus space-based infrastructure. These include satellites already financed by individual governments, and spacecraft that are part of bilateral efforts between individual European nations and the
United States
,
Israel
,
India
and others.

For the first phase of Kopernikus, ESA has agreed to spend 758 million euros to start construction of three Sentinel satellites carrying radar, high-resolution optical and medium-resolution multispectral imagers.

To meet user demands that this data not be subject to interruption in the event of a single satellite failure or a near-term budget issue, ESA and the commission have agreed to build a backup satellite for each of the three Sentinels, to be launched near the end of the service life of the first or, if needed, to replace a satellite that fails at launch or in orbit.

These so-called “B-units” of the Sentinels have not yet been financed and will be a principal component of ESA’s request to governments in November.

Volker Liebig, ESA’s director for Earth observation, said the agency remains hopeful that its proposal to spend 997 million euros on the B-units and on other Kopernikus-related programs will be acceptable to ESA member states.

But Liebig conceded in a Sept. 17 interview here at the Forum GMES 2008 conference on Kopernikus that several delegations have asked ESA to prepare to lower its budget demands.

Liebig
said that for Kopernikus/GMES, a lower-than-planned investment by one government, such as
Italy
, might be partially compensated for by a higher investment by another government, such as
Britain
.

“It is too early to speculate what the net effect will be,” Liebig said. Nonetheless, he said the agency is investigating how long it can delay the B-unit order without losing the economic benefits of ordering two satellites from each of the Sentinel manufacturers.

Officials at
‘s two biggest satellite prime contractors, Astrium Satellites and ThalesAlenia Space, say they have tentatively agreed with ESA on B-unit prices on the assumption that the three pairs of satellites can be built in a single series, without a gap in production. If the gap is too long between the work on the first and second Sentinels, the price for the second will go up, they said.

“We understand this problem, and we are trying to determine how far we can go in stretching out the budget demands without having a big cost increase,” Liebig said. “What we know from past programs is that spending profiles often get spread out in any event because of delays. So we are not pessimistic about being able to reach a compromise here.”

Beyond the funding of the B-units, European Commission and ESA officials say Kopernikus in the future should be funded mainly by the European Commission, except for the first copy of each new generation of satellites, whose financing would be split evenly between ESA and the commission.

It is a model that resembles the relationship between ESA and
Europe
‘s meteorological satellite organization, Eumetsat.

Commission officials made clear here that Kopernikus will not depend on private financing, and should be considered public infrastructure, like a highway. “Kopernikus is a public good, it is not a business opportunity,” European Commission Vice President GuenterVerheugen said, adding that the commission now is preparing estimates for how much Kopernikus will cost once the first generation of satellites is completed.