Italian Funding Shift Casts Shadow on ESA Initiatives

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  Space News Business

Italian Funding Shift Casts Shadow on ESA Initiatives

By PETER B. de SELDING
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 10 October 2008
03:46 pm ET





GLASGOW, Scotland — The Italian government is redirecting its space budget to bolster its national program at the expense of its investment in the European Space Agency (ESA), a decision that will affect ESA for years and undermine a multibillion-dollar ESA spending program to be reviewed by European governments in November, the new head of the Italian Space Agency (ASI) said.

In a Sept. 29 briefing here during the International Astronautical Congress, Enrico Saggese, who was appointed ASI commissioner in July, said Italian government authorities, despite cutting defense and other spending, have agreed to leave ASI’s budget at about 650 million euros ($950 million) per year. “The government has decided to keep space spending constant,” Saggese said. “It shows the appreciation of the value of a space program.”

But instead of having 60 percent or more of that budget devoted to ESA programs, Italy henceforth will reserve 50 percent for national programs such as a second-generation Cosmo-Skymed radar Earth observation constellation, Saggese said.

As ESA’s third-largest contributor, after France and Germany, Italy has a key role in most big-ticket ESA missions.

One of the immediate consequences of Italy’s decision could be ESA’s proposed Enhanced ExoMars rover mission, which has been overhauled since its initial approval in 2005 to deliver more science payload to Mars’ surface, with a launch in 2013. The increased science package has nearly doubled the ExoMars budget, to an estimated 1.2 billion euros.

Italy had taken a nearly 40 percent share of the original ExoMars program, and has secured the mission prime contractor’s role for Thales Alenia Space‘s Italian division.

But Saggese said Italy is ready to give up the prime contractor’s role, if necessary, and will not increase its stake in the mission.

“The ExoMars mission we approved was a technology mission, not a science mission,” Saggese said. “Now people want to transform it into a science mission even though it has not been subject to a clear endorsement by the science community. If somebody wants to put more money into this than Italy, then they can take the lead. We will continue with our initial investment in ExoMars.”

One European government official said if Italy declines to increase its spending, then the Enhanced ExoMars mission cannot survive. “It would take us six months to change prime contractors from Italy to, say, Germany, and we would lose the 2013 launch slot and further increase costs,” this official said.

Similarly, Saggese questioned a proposal, to be presented at the November meeting of ESA governments, to spend some 200 million euros to upgrade the Automated Transfer Vehicle space station cargo carrier to permit it to return experiments from the station.

Saggese said the planned upgrade would produce a vehicle that will be ready for use not long before the international space station is retired and thus is a questionable investment.

Italy has been a major backer of a broad Earth observation program called Kopernikus, agreeing to finance 30 percent of the three Sentinel observation satellites being built under the program. But ESA, backed by the European Commission, wants to spend an additional 900 million euros to build three identical Sentinels to assure mission continuity.

Saggese said Italy will not agree to this. “These so-called B-units are recurrent missions that should be financed by the users,” Saggese said. “It is the European Commission, or Eumetsat [Europe’s meteorological satellite organization] that should be paying for these satellites, not a research organization like ESA. If they are not willing to finance the B-units, then perhaps that means the users of these satellites do not really want them. If we agree to this, later they will be asking ESA to finance the C and D units too.”

Saggese said he is also skeptical of a program called Space Situational Awareness that ESA governments will be asked to fund, in the amount of 100 million euros over three years, in November. The program would track space debris and also give European civil and military authorities better information on satellites orbiting over Europe.

“We do not have enough information on this program to be able to ask our defense authorities what they think of it,” Saggese said. But he did not completely rule out participating in a reduced-scale version of the program.