LONDON — European Space Agency () governments meet Dec. 12-13 to get a clear look at their total program outline for the next few years now that the dust has settled from a Nov. 20-21 ministerial conference that raised as many issues as it resolved.
In a document dated Nov. 30 that was sent to the agency’s 20 nations in preparation for the Dec. 12-13 meeting of ESA’s ruling council, the agency reduces to hard numbers the program commitments made by its member states during last month’s ministerial conference in Naples, Italy.
The document, “Status of confirmed subscriptions to optional programmes,” shows that many programs approved in Naples are still far short of the subscription commitments needed to fund them.
At ESA, this is not unusual. The agency commonly agrees to undertake missions where funding is only 80 percent of the required total. The remaining funds are subsequently found, often by supplemental commitments from participating nations that want more work for their industry.
ESA’s optional programs, which account for 80 percent of what the agency does, guarantee nations that 90 percent of what they contribute will return to them in the form of ESA contracts with their industry.
In certain circumstances, ESA permits a program to begin even if its subscriptions fall short of 80 percent, with the agency and the participating member states using their discretion about whether the remaining funds would eventually be available.
But in this case, multiple programs that make up ESA’s headline figure of 10.1 billion euros ($13 billion) in new commitments made in Naples were subscribed at levels as low as 50 percent.
Even that may be optimistic for some of them. The document says that Spain, ESA’s fifth-largest contributor in recent years, asked that it be given until Jan. 15 to send final commitments to the missions it subscribed to in Naples, including the second-generation polar-orbiting meteorological satellites, ESA’s Earth observation science missions and the Ariane launcher program.
In a twist to past ESA practice, the document says the agency in Naples agreed to let nations sign up to programs even if their contribution level was less than one-fourth of their normal ESA participating weight when measured by gross domestic product.
To prevent nations with small levels of participation from blocking programs that are usually run on the basis of unanimity, the document says nations subscribing to these low levels will not have veto power over program decisions made by other program participants.
Here are examples of programs whose funding commitments, according to the document, raise questions about their future:
- Vega evolution. ESA’s Italian-led Vega small-satellite launcher, which has conducted its first successful flight, is being enhanced to carry slightly bigger satellite payloads into low Earth orbit and to correct for the relatively minor anomalies that showed up in the inaugural flight. ESA had wanted 157 million euros for this program between 2013 and 2015. But despite an Italian commitment of 50 million euros, Vega’s support was just 53 percent of that.
- A small space exploration effort centered on Mars, to accompany ESA’s ExoMars two-launch mission to Mars with Russia, was subscribed to just 30 percent of the 115 million euros that ESA requested between 2013 and 2017.
- A follow-on Space Situational Awareness program that includes space weather monitoring and eventually an ability to detect objects in space over Europe secured only 61 percent of the 75 million euros ESA had requested. France, which with Germany is the most active ESA nation in space situational awareness, is absent from the program.
- The ELIPS, or European Programme for Life and Physical Sciences Applications in Space, agenda for experiments in microgravity was funded at just 54 percent of the 388 million euros ESA had requested between 2013 and 2016. Germany is the big contributor here, having subscribed at a level of nearly 109 million euros.
It remains unclear how much money ESA will have for using its Columbus space station laboratory, which is attached to the international space station, after the agency pays for its other station-related operating costs.
As was the case at the last ESA ministerial conference in 2008, the agency’s member states fell over each other signing up for the second-generation Metop polar orbiting satellite system.
ESA had asked for 780 million euros for its share of the second-generation Metop effort. Its member governments committed nearly 809 million euros. Unless Spain’s Jan. 15 deadline results in a reduced participation — Spain had signed on to pay 52 million euros — in this, ESA will face the task of trying to trim its member nations’ support.