Researchers Call Plan To End GMES Commitment a ‘Disaster’

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PARIS — The heads of two international organizations focused on Earth observation on Sept. 16 said the European Commission’s proposal to end its commitment to a broad environmental Earth observation project was “a disaster” and “a very bad signal” to the international community.

“It is a disaster for industry now, and for the [Earth observation] services sector in Europe,” said Stefano Bruzzi, chairman of the Committee on Earth Observation (CEOS). “It is also disastrous for European cooperation in the Earth observation area, and for the European Union on the international cooperation scene.”

Bruzzi, whose organization includes many of the world’s space agencies and other organizations dealing with geo-information, was referring to the European Commission’s proposal to remove the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program from Europe’s next seven-year budget.

That budget starts in 2014. The commission said it feared that GMES, which as yet has no legal owner or operator, would exceed its budget.

The commission proposed that it set GMES apart and ask individual European Union governments to fund it as they saw fit.

Until its action in July, the commission had considered GMES and the Galileo satellite navigation project as what it called its “flagship” space programs, the first two major space efforts undertaken by the 27-nation European Union.

“GMES was a flagship that was highly regarded in the rest of the world,” said Jose Achache, director of the Group of Earth Observation (GEO) secretariat, a Geneva-based organization with some 86 governments as members in addition to 60 international organizations.

Achache, a former director at the European Space Agency (ESA), was involved in GMES’s creation and early funding by ESA. ESA has since handed off GMES responsibility to the commission for management and operation.

Together, ESA and the European Commission have already spent more than 1.6 billion euros ($2.2 billion) on GMES, mainly on developing a line of observation satellites, called Sentinels.

Achache said he remained hopeful that the commission’s move was a tactical maneuver to generate protests among European governments and, ultimately, increase the commission’s seven-year spending authority.

Achache said GMES is paying the price for a lack of clarity in its organization, and the fact that, unlike the Galileo navigation project, it is not formally owned by anyone. Galileo is owned by the European Union.

Addressing the World Satellite Business Week conference here, Bruzzi said he could not share Achache’s optimism, especially since the commission proposed eliminating not just GMES development from its multiyear budget, but also its services component. “GMES was supposed to be user-driven,” Bruzzi said.

The GMES situation came as a surprise to many because ESA and the European Commission in recent years have prided themselves on leading the world in development of geo-information systems, particularly via satellite.

Earth observation is ESA’s biggest funding line, even without counting large national Earth observation satellite investments made by France, Germany, Italy, Spain and other national governments.

The many years of investment, coupled with the lack of a large military market for observation in Europe, has forced European manufacturers to look overseas for markets for their satellites.

The most successful of these companies is Astrium Satellites and its subsidiary, Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. of Britain.

With U.S. companies focused on the U.S. government market, Astrium and its Surrey division have sold Earth observation satellites to some two dozen nations around the world.

Evert Dudok, president of Astrium Satellites, said Sept. 12 that the company now has 25 Earth observation satellites under construction.

Nine of these are for ESA, including two Sentinel satellites for GMES; seven are for the French and Spanish defense ministries, including four Elisa electronics intelligence satellites that may or may not be considered Earth observation. Four satellites are under contract for export markets — two for Kazakhstan, one for Vietnam and one for Algeria. Three are for national civil government authorities in France and Spain, and a final two, Spot 6 and Spot 7, are under construction for Astrium itself.

Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy has sold radar and optical sensors to Turkey and South Korea.

Dudok said Astrium is so confident of the Earth observation market that it is willing to finance, on its own, a second-generation German TerraSAR-X radar Earth observation satellite, which with TanDEM-X is now in low Earth orbit.

Astrium is spending about 300 million euros of its own funds to build the Spot 6 and Spot 7 medium-resolution spacecraft, with no French or other government guarantee of imagery purchases.

Astrium had promised the German government, which helped pay for TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X, that the second-generation system would be financed without government support.

Dudok reiterated that Sept. 12. “A promise is a promise,” he said, adding that the discussion with the German government now centers on whether the second-generation system will include new features. If that is the case, he said, government funding will be necessary. But if the satellites are identical copies of their predecessors, Astrium is prepared to go it alone on financing.

Despite these successes, European industry officials say Europe’s data access policy within the 27-nation European Union remains unclear. ESA has proposed that imagery from its satellites and any produced for GMES be distributed free of charge. The European Union has not issued a clear policy.