Profile: Volker Liebig, European Space Agency Director of Earth Observation

A meeting of European Space Agency (ESA) governments scheduled for Dec. 5-6 in Berlin is expected to determine whether ESA — and Europe generally — will become a global hub for Earth observation research and services, including commercial services, in the coming years.

While the European Union’s promised commitment to a broad program called Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) will not be confirmed until 2006, ESA government ministers will be asked during December’s meeting to endorse multiple Earth observation initiatives that presume a European Union role .

Some of them are intended to guarantee continuity of current satellite-based measurements ; others will move Europe and ESA into new territory where the lines between defense, security, humanitarian aid, Earth science and commerce are often blurred.

It is Volker Liebig’s job to ensure that the different proposals — some tied to the European Commission, some to the Eumetsat meteorological agency — survive the inevitable budget disputes during the December conference.

One of the first concrete examples of ESA’s new Earth observation approach, decided in 2001, was supposed to be Cryosat, a radar-equipped polar-ice mapping satellite, which was lost during an Oct. 8 launch failure. But five more of what ESA calls its Earth Explorer missions are in development, with launches scheduled about once per year.

Liebig discussed ESA’s Earth observation ambitions with Space News staff writer Peter B. de Selding.

You have had very good luck with your ERS-2 and Envisat radar Earth observation satellites. Both are relatively healthy. When will you need to replace them?

We need a replacement mission by 2010 or 2011 to ensure data continuity for the scientific community . ERS-2, launched in 1995, still is operational and is used in the context of the international charter on disaster response. Envisat, too, has been a huge success since its launch in 2002. Hundreds of gigabytes per day are processed here [at ESA’s Esrin Earth observation facility in Frascati, Italy] , downloaded directly from Envisat or via the Artemis data-relay satellite.

Are users asking that you assure data continuity?

Yes. We have some 250 operational user organizations covering areas including forest monitoring, ice monitoring, coastal-zone management, ozone-layer tracking, food security and others. Scientists and operational users have made clear that their work requires that there is no serious gap in sensor data.

Right now you have no satellite program to replace the data coming from ERS-2 and Envisat. What are you proposing?

We will ask our member governments in December for approval for a satellite we call GMES-1. Assuming we get approval for this, we will select GMES-1 payload instruments in 2006. The payload probably ought to include sensors for radar altimetry, an AATSR [advanced along-track scanning radiometer] and an ocean-color sensor.

What else will be in this package you are asking for in December?

As part of our GMES contribution, we will ask for funds to complete the ground segment linking third-party systems in Europe. These missions, funded by individual member states, include Germany’s TerraSAR-X satellite, the two French Pleiades optical satellites and Italy’s Cosmo [Skymed] radar satellite system. And we want to include funding for preliminary work on payloads for five future GMES missions, which we have been calling Sentinels.

GMES is supposed to be 50 percent funded by the executive commission of the 25-nation European Union. But the commission’s overall 2007-2013 budget has not been approved. How can you proceed without knowing your partner’s final contribution?

We are dividing things into slices. The first slice, including a start on the GMES-1 satellite and the ground installations for the third-party systems, will start in 2006. In 2007 we would begin the second slice, to enable us to complete the GMES-1 satellite. By then the commission’s budget should be unblocked.

It is true that the EU Commission debate has affected our plans. We have heard rumors that the entire EU research budget, which includes GMES, could be cut by 40 percent. You hear other figures too. Would GMES be cut by that much? That’s not sure. But GMES is a high priority for the commission.

The “S” in GMES stands for security. How do you integrate security — or even defense — into ESA’s program?

We are only just now starting with the security aspects. Much has not yet been defined. For example, people are increasingly concerned about border control, a subject the commission has been thinking about. This may be a big issue in five years or so. Another issue is cryptography — to be able to task a satellite without another customer of the same satellite being able to determine what the task is.

Some of our operational users’ organizations already are working on issues such as refugee monitoring in Darfur [Sudan]. And the Respond crisis-monitoring consortium is working with the United Nations, the World Health Organization and others.

Europe is developing a small-satellite launcher, Vega, for satellites being planned by European and other governments. Will you be obliged to use it?

There is a continuing discussion on launcher procurement policy. Certainly there should be a preference for a European launcher. Vega is scheduled to begin operations in 2008, and I would like to see at least two successful launches before we assign one of our satellites to it.

You are asking for more than 2 billion euros ($2.41 billion) in funding over several years at a time when ESA’s overall budget is flat. How have ESA governments reacted so far?

The reaction has been positive. Of course, we cannot presume anything until the formal decisions are taken at the December meeting. But if you add GMES and our other Earth observation programs, there is a consensus emerging about the agency’s direction. And if you look at the future, we are one of the only areas of growth in European space.