— The British government is prepared to increase its investment in ‘s Kopernikus fleet of Earth observation satellites as part of an arrangement that includes the creation, in , of a European Space Agency (ESA) center for space expertise, British National Space Center (BNSC) Director-General David Williams said.
The quid pro quo will be informal, as ESA does not establish field centers in return for cash. But Williams said BNSC and the agency are nearing an agreement that would lead to the creation of an ESA facility in that would focus on robotic exploration, where hopes to develop its expertise, climate change and integrated applications, especially for satellite telecommunications.
The British space industry association, UKspace, publicly urged the establishment of a center Sept. 29 during the International Astronautical Congress here, saying it would reflect ‘s status as a center for space-based telecommunications and investment.
“The U.K. has the world’s most profitable mobile communications provider, is Europe’s most successful satellite-based TV broadcaster [and] the world’s leading capital market for satellite and application financing,” former UKspace Chairman John Auburn said in a statement. He was referring, respectively, to mobile satellite services provider , SkyTV and the London Stock Exchange’s AIM exchange for high- growth companies.
ESA currently has centers in the , and in addition to its headquarters in
In a Sept. 30 interview, Williams said expects to increase its investment in the Kopernikus Earth observation program, in which it has been only a marginal presence up to now. But Williams said the investment is not intended to signal approval of ESA’s plans to build three so-called B-unit versions of the Sentinel satellites it is already building.
ESA and the European Union want to build the B-units as backups for the original three Sentinels, and to guarantee a continuous data flow to Kopernikus users.
Williams said ESA should remain a developer of space technologies, not a builder of recurrent models of satellites already manufactured. “ESA should be responsible for the first flight models, and that’s it,” Williams said, adding that it is Kopernikus users, through the Commission of the 27-nation European Union, who should finance the subsequent models.
One ESA official said that if ‘s fresh investment of around 100 million euros ($146 million) in Kopernikus is confirmed, it can be applied to the first Sentinels but ultimately will make it easier to build the B- units as well.
has long argued that ESA should focus on robotic exploration and not invest heavily in astronaut-related programs. While the current British government appears to have relaxed its formerly staunch opposition to manned spaceflight, the changed view is unlikely to translate immediately into a financial commitment to ESA’s space station program. is not taking part in the international space station.
Williams said BNSC does support an ESA plan to increase the size of the ExoMars rover mission because of the additional science the enhanced mission will provide, even though the new ExoMars will cost around 1.2 billion euros -nearly double the cost of the initial project.
“We intend to keep our 15 percent share of this program” despite the cost increase,” Williams said.
Williams said remains skeptical about two other programs ESA is expected to propose to its governments at a Nov. 25-26 conference on budget priorities: a Space Situational Awareness program to monitor space debris and to identify satellites in orbit; and a data-relay satellite to speed delivery of Earth observation data.
In both cases, Williams said he suspects that ESA is setting program parameters in part on instruction from military users without those users being called on to help pay for the programs.
“If the EDA [the European Defense Agency] says: ‘We need this,’ then they should participate in it,” Williams said of the Space Situational Awareness proposal. He said will not support the data-relay satellite proposal. “Who needs all this additional data at this speed? They are talking about adding laser- optical intersatellite links. Where is the need? Why not just establish ground stations where needed?” He added that the military is the only logical customer base for a data-relay function.
“In these programs, the key for us is to find out where the requirement comes from,” Williams said. “Let’s not slide things into the proposals” on behalf of military users who are not helping to finance the missions, he said.