Lars Prahm retires from his post as director-general of Europe’s meteorological satellite organization, Eumetsat, Aug. 1 after seven years that have witnessed the organization’s growth from 18 to 26 member states.

Darmstadt, Germany-based Eumetsat, whose programs are habitually as noncontroversial as mother’s milk, has been dragged into political and budget fights almost despite itself. The Jason-3 ocean topography satellite, the Meteosat Third Generation (MTG) geostationary-orbit system and the structure of Europe’s broad Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) effort have all forced Eumetsat to take part in occasionally sharp disputes. Governmental meteorological agencies are unaccustomed to this.

Despite this, the organization has succeeded in winning the needed backing for these and other programs, and is now a regular participant in the GMES debate managed by the 27-nation European Union. The bottom line, Prahm says, is that no weather-satellite program in the world is on more-solid ground than Europe’s.

Once his successor, Alain Ratier of Meteo France, arrives to take his place, Prahm will return to his former job as director-general of Denmark’s Danish Meteorological Institute, taking a seat as just another Eumetsat national member during the organization’s council meetings.

He spoke with Space News staff writer Peter B. de Selding.


What would you say are the high points of your seven-year tenure?

Launches are always critical and we had three while I was here, all of them successful. First was the MSG-2 satellite in 2005, which allowed us to provide fully operational MSG services to our users when combined with the MSG-1 satellite already in orbit. This is exactly what our users need.

The second was the first Metop polar-orbiting satellite in 2006, which strengthened our cooperation with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA has instruments on our satellite, and we have instruments on theirs, and we divide responsibility for the polar orbit.

The development of the Antarctica ground station for dumping satellite data there, also with NOAA, has allowed us to reduce by about an hour the time lag from when the satellite receives the data to when it is available to users. Timely delivery of data is so important and dumping data twice in one orbit allows us to do that.

Finally, the Jason-2 satellite to monitor ocean altimetry and wave heights, based on cooperation between the French space agency, CNES; NASA; NOAA and us, was launched in 2008. It is working in an excellent way.


Jason-3 is a relatively small program but there was quite a struggle in Europe before it won approval.

Yes, it was tough work and it gave us some headaches. It was an optional program for our member states, whereas our other missions are part of our mandatory program that requires the support of all our member states. It took some time to make the case for Jason-3. But we were able to do it.


Jason-3’s delays mean there is a risk that Jason-2 will be retired before Jason-3 is launched, causing an interruption in data continuity. What is the status?

There have been some delays and we are now planning a Jason-3 launch in early 2014. But Jason-2 is in good shape and there is every reason to be optimistic that it will continue operating until Jason-3 is in orbit.


You have begun planning a Jason-4, called Jason-CS, or Continuity of Service. Will this feature continued U.S.-European collaboration or will it be an all-European mission?

There is a good understanding that all the current Jason parties need to stay on board. NASA wants to remain involved, as does the European Space Agency (ESA), as well as Eumetsat and NOAA. We only need one system in this inclined orbit, and I believe continuing the trans-Atlantic cooperative effort is the best way forward.


You also were able to win approval, with ESA, of the MTG program, which is costing around 3.4 billion euros ($4.8 billion) and was the subject of a long dispute about industrial work shares at ESA.

Yes, this did take more time than we had hoped, but the fact is that MTG is the largest investment ever made in meteorology in Europe. Its sounder and imager instruments will provide unrivaled data for us through around 2040 and will provide a significant improvement in data over the European zone.

The delays were caused by a discussion on the ESA side. On the Eumetsat side, MTG took only eight months of work for us to win the approval of our member states. As for what happened on the ESA side, most of the debate was due to the fact that some ESA member states wanted more work on the program, not less. So you could look at this as having two sides. On one hand there were delays in implementation because of a debate on work distribution. On the other hand, there was never any discussion among ESA members about not taking part.

Yes, it did cost us some blood, sweat and tears to make it happen. But for a program of this size, a few months of delay is really not so bad.


For MTG, as for most of your programs, ESA finances most of the development of the first satellite, and then Eumetsat pays for the remaining development charges, plus the recurring-model satellites and operations. Is this a sustainable model or should Eumetsat ultimately finance its entire program and hire ESA as technical manager?

The current division of work is the right way to do it. Remember we are only 270 people at Eumetsat. We do not have the competence to design and build the satellites. This competence resides at ESA and in industry. So we have in a sense outsourced development to ESA and industry.


But it’s a special kind of outsourcing in that ESA invests its own money into the development of the satellites that Eumetsat then uses. By depending on ESA money, you are not fully the master of your destiny.

That’s true, and we always need to synchronize with ESA. This sometimes makes things more complicated. The European way of doing this certainly is complex. I can only say that it has demonstrated its efficiency, and when I look around the world, I think our way of proceeding with these programs has proved itself more effective than other systems that may look simpler.


The European Commission is creating the multibillion-euro GMES Earth observation satellite system. Wouldn’t it be logical to assign Eumetsat as GMES operator?

We already are designated operator for three of the Sentinel satellite missions that deal with atmospheric and ocean phenomena. That is our mandate now. It does not extend to other GMES areas, except maybe for climate. For the other areas, the commission has yet to select an operator. It could be someone in the private sector.

Is there sufficient coordination on GMES between the commission, Eumetsat and ESA to avoid duplication of investment, such as what Eumetsat has created with its eight Satellite Application Facilities, funded by Eumetsat and the nations that host them?

We are moving in the right direction. GMES was originally an R&D program with ESA. Now its ambition is to be an operational program. You see in the U.S. National Space Policy that NASA does the R&D and NOAA handles the operations. I think in Europe we will move in this direction, starting with user requirements and then system design.

Our council recently approved a five-year extension of our Satellite Application Facilities, to 2017, and I think these facilities’ relevance to GMES is understood by all the parties.


You have begun designing your next-generation polar-orbiting system, called EPS Second Generation. The financial problems of four of your member governments have delayed approval of preparatory work, which will make it more difficult to meet ESA’s deadline for system definition. Is this a problem?

I don’t believe so. We have an agreement of all our member states on the importance of this, and we will have a special council meeting on Oct. 5 to resolve the remaining issues so that we are aligned with ESA’s schedule. ESA then should have enough time to prepare before its own council meeting in the autumn of 2012.


Eumetsat’s deepest partnership outside Europe is with NOAA. Will this expand to other agencies?

This is already happening and our council has encouraged us to go further. NOAA is still our closest partner but we have struck agreements with India, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea as well. China in particular is now providing backup to the Eumetsat and NOAA satellites in polar orbit. This is very important, as now Europe and the United States will be dependent on this backup. I think ultimately we will see a global system being composed of contributions from NOAA, Eumetsat, China and India, and someday, Russia. It will ensure service continuity and provide better data distribution for users all over the world.

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.