PARIS — The German government has indicated that it will be able to contribute just as much to Europe’s space program at a meeting of European space ministers in November as it did at the previous meeting in 2008, and perhaps a bit more, the head of Germany’s space agency said.
More specifically, Germany’s de facto space minister has told the European Space Agency () that Germany is fully behind a planned $2 billion, four-year investment in Earth observation missions, ESA’s Earth observation director said.
In a press briefing during the International Geosciences and Remote Sensing Symposium (IGARSS), held July 23-27 in Munich, Johann Dietrich Woerner, head of the German Aerospace Center, DLR, said it is becoming clearer that Germany intends no reduction in its ESA engagement this year.
Ministers from ESA’s 19 nations will meet in November in Caserta, Italy, to determine ESA’s multiyear budget and program direction. The government debt crisis that has shaken Greece, Portugal and Spain and threatens Italy will make it difficult for these nations to commit beyond the bare minimum, ESA officials fear.
Italy and Spain are ESA’s third- and fifth-largest contributors, respectively, with a combined 18.4 percent of the agency’s total member-state commitments.
Woerner said Germany, which vies with France for the title of ESA’s largest contributor, in recent years has raised its profile at the agency. At the November 2008 ministerial conference, Germany accounted for 27 percent of the 10 billion euros ($12.5 billion) that were committed to ESA programs.
Woerner said there is no talk of cutting Germany’s contribution at this year’s conference, and that there is some hope for a slight increase.
Woerner and Volker Liebig, ESA’s Earth observation director, met the week of July 16 with Peter Hintze, Germany’s parliamentary state secretary and federal government coordinator of aerospace policy, who will lead the German delegation to the November conference.
Liebig said during the IGARSS briefing that Hintze gave specific assurances that Germany would maintain its support for what ESA calls its Earth Observation Envelope Program, which funds the agency’s Explorer missions.
Liebig has been forced to reduce the program from 1.9 billion euros over five years to 1.6 billion euros over four years to accommodate debt-stressed nations. But he said Hintze indicated that Germany backed the program and would remain around the same 21-22 percent level as in 2008.
“I am very happy that the biggest contributor is making these statements,” Liebig said. But he cautioned that other ESA nations, notably Italy and Spain, have not yet determined their ESA funding levels.
“We know that Earth observation is a high priority for Italy,” said Liebig, whose directorate is based at ESA’s European Space Research Institute outside Rome. “But there probably will be limits for at least several years. As for Spain, we don’t know yet. Their recent parliamentary decisions have produced an overall budget but it is not clear how it will break down” for space spending.
The newly elected French government, which is also struggling with high public debt and anemic growth, has not yet formulated a detailed space spending plan.
IGARSS is the world’s biggest annual gathering of Earth observation specialists. The Munich meeting set a record attendance level at 2,500.
Woerner used the occasion to highlight Germany’s continued ambitions in Earth observation both through ESA and through DLR’s national program. He said an L-band radar system to complement the X-band radar aboard Germany’s TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X radar spacecraft, both in orbit, is being studied.
Woerner suggested that a TanDEM-L system would also use two satellites.
The TerraSAR-X satellite was launched in June 2007 and is expected to be retired around 2014. It and TanDEM-X were built as part of a public-private partnership between DLR and Astrium Geo-Information Services, which had expected that revenue from the two-satellite system would be sufficient to enable the company to finance a successor satellite without much DLR involvement.
That has not proved to be the case, and Woerner said DLR and Astrium have been negotiating their relative roles in a TerraSAR-X successor. But he said DLR wants to see an exit strategy for the government.
“We need a next-generation X-band radar, and the discussion with Astrium now is over financing,” Woerner said. “But let’s recall that when we refer to PPP, we mean public-private partnership, not public pays permanently.”