Scientists Urge the European Space Agency To Make Station a Priority

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  Space News Business

Scientists Urge the European Space Agency To Make Station a Priority

By PETER B. de SELDING
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 04 November 2008
05:00 pm ET






PARIS
— Scientists from 30 nations in
Europe
are urging the European Space Agency (ESA) not to sacrifice research on the international space station to other exploration programs, and calling on the agency to increase its role in scientific data analysis and use.

In a report presented to ESA in preparation for a Nov. 25-26 conference of ESA governments that will decide spending and policy directions, the European Science Foundation (ESF) also says
Europe
needs to be more independent of the
United States
and
Russia
for technologies that will be key to future exploration efforts.

These technologies include nuclear-powered satellites and planetary rovers, and certain astronomy sensors that are currently not built in
Europe
and are available only with difficulty – if at all – from the
U.S.
and Russian producers.

In its proposals, ESF’s European Space Sciences Committee says European scientists view the exploration of Mars as “the highest strategic priority” for
‘s exploration program.

But because the exploration program is powered by political and technological motives, not just scientific value, the report, “Recommendations to the Ministerial Conference of ESA Member States,” says plenty of interesting science can be done on the international space station and on the Moon while planning a future Mars effort.

Strasbourg, France-based ESF is a nongovernmental organization representing 77 agencies in 30 European nations.

Jean-Claude Worms, head of ESF’s space sciences unit, conceded in an Oct. 30 interview that the debate over whether a limited science and exploration budget should be devoted to lunar or Mars missions “remains very touchy” in Europe. Some scientists have said
Europe
should not participate in an international lunar exploration program but should focus their efforts on Mars.

But the ESF report, in what Worms conceded may be a case of making the best of an imperfect scenario, says much remains to be done at the international space station and, eventually, on the Moon in the way of scientifically valuable work.

At the same time it calls for more space station work, the report is reserved about what role astronauts might play in space exploration, saying “the role of humans as a unique tool in conducting research on the Moon and on Mars must be assessed in further detail.”

The report specifically urges ESA governments to inject fresh funds into the ELIPS program of life- and physical-sciences research on the international space station.
Europe
‘s
Columbus
laboratory was attached to the station this year.

In what may be considered an unusual role for scientists, ESF is pushing ESA and individual European governments to reduce
Europe
‘s space-technology dependence on
U.S.
and Russian suppliers because it makes it difficult for
Europe
to pursue its own ambitions.

Worms
said ESF is backing efforts by ESA and European industry, coordinated by the Eurospace industry association, to focus on key technologies whose export from the
United States
is restricted by the
U.S.
export regime known as the international traffic in arms regulations (ITAR). “
Europe
has to become ITAR-independent,”
Worms
said.

The report focuses on
‘s use of scientific and Earth observation data as an area in need of much improvement.

Unlike NASA, whose budget for satellites also includes a budget for retrieving, disseminating and archiving the data, ESA is managed as a research and development organization that builds and launches spacecraft and ground facilities and leaves it to national member governments to deal with data distribution.

Worms
said that because many of the national laboratories do not have sufficient budgets to handle the complex stream of data coming from ESA spacecraft, this role is not performed very well. He said in some cases – such as the XMM-Newton X-ray satellite launched in 1999 –
U.S.
scientists taking part in ESA missions as junior partners often are better able to analyze and catalogue data than the Europeans who financed the satellite.

ESF proposes that ESA governments modify the agency’s charter in a way that would permit it to take a larger role in data handling, and also actively solicit proposals from scientists outlining ways to collaborate on data exploitation across
.

This is not just the case for science missions, ESF says. It also is true for the emerging Kopernikus program of Earth observation for scientific, environmental and security applications. The report suggests that the European Union’s executive commission, which is co-financing Kopernikus, should work with ESA to assure that the data collection and dissemination function is better organized.

ESF says it is backing an ESA proposal that the agency’s science budget, now at about 400 million euros ($540 million) per year, be raised to 500 million euros over the course of three years.

The Nov. 25-26 meeting of ESA governments will decide a three-year science budget as well as new exploration and Earth observation missions.