Satellite Earth observation is now the biggest single space-spending focus of European governments — bigger than launch vehicles, human spaceflight and space science — and it shows no sign of slowing down.

The European Space Agency (ESA) and the 27-nation European Union’s executive commission have committed to a long-term collaboration called Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) that should assure uninterrupted optical and radar satellite data availability well past 2020. Europe’s Eumetsat organization is broadening its mandate to add oceanography to its core meteorology missions.

The European Defence Agency and individual European governments continue to produce their own surveillance systems, some of which will be dual-use sources for GMES.

Five more science-based Earth Explorer satellites are under construction for ESA and set for launch starting this year, and selection for a seventh is under way.

For missions that are thought to have a more immediate application for commercial or government interests, ESA and the European Commission have agreed to build three Sentinel observation satellites, plus Sentinel payloads to be launched on Eumetsat meteorological spacecraft.

Duplicate models of the first three Sentinel satellites will be contracted this year. Also coming is the next-generation Meteosat meteorological satellite system, called Meteosat Third Generation, to be contracted by ESA on Eumetsat’s behalf.

In addition to GMES, ESA receives data from 25 satellites operated by others and distributes it throughout Europe.

Managing the world’s most dynamic satellite Earth observation program means not having to depend on anyone else. But ESA’s Earth observation director, Volker Liebig, says he is determined to pursue a closer collaboration with NASA on future Earth observation missions in a way that avoids duplication but recognizes each side’s industrial-base requirements. How far such a collaboration can go will depend in part on the new U.S. presidential administration’s future Earth observation strategy.

With all this satellite activity, it was perhaps predictable that one of Liebig’s biggest headaches is finding launchers for them while waiting for Europe’s own small satellite launcher, Vega, to enter service around 2011. Schedule slippages in recent satellites have been mainly due to rocket availability. Liebig spoke with Space News staff writer Peter B. de Selding. 


Since the launch failure that destroyed your CryoSat satellite in October 2005 you have had repeated delays on the Russian and Ukrainian rockets you booked for your spacecraft. What can you do about it?

I have no short-term solution to what is clearly, for us, a launcher shortage. The Vega rocket is the solution the agency has decided on and I am looking forward to it. We will certainly use Vega, but not before it has conducted two successful flights — the maiden flight and one other. For our program that could mean the ADM-Aeolus satellite, set for launch in 2011.

I have an invitation-to-tender offer out for two Soyuz-class medium-lift launches and one Vega-class small satellite launch. I need the Soyuz-class launches in 2012 and 2013. In addition, we will contract for a backup launch for each of our early Vega flights, which is likely to be a contract option we will buy.


When do you expect to sign manufacturing contracts for the three so-called Sentinel “B units,” which are duplicates of the Sentinel-1, 2 and 3 satellites?

The contracts have been negotiated and sent to the Industrial Policy Committee, ESA’s contract-approval board. The contracts should be signed by sometime in October.


You had been asking for cost reductions of 40 percent to 50 percent for the “B” units compared to the first models. Did you reach that goal?

Yes, it took some negotiating, but we are within 1 percent or 2 percent of that objective. We had ceiling prices for the second models in each of the three Sentinel contracts, so this made it easier.


Another big contract coming from you is for the Meteosat Third Generation meteorological satellite system, to be operated by Eumetsat. What’s the status?

We expect to receive the industrial bids by Oct. 2, with contracts to be signed before the end of the year. It has taken us time to create the bidding conditions we needed given the strong role of France and Germany in this program. Each has a 34 percent share and the contracts had to account for that. This system is based on satellites carrying a sounder instrument, and others carrying an imager. We split the contract into four pieces — satellite platform, payload, sounder instruments and imagers.

We have come up with a solution that guarantees the required shares to France and Germany, while protecting the rights of smaller countries, which have complained that their industry could be left out. One feature of this, that permitted a broader return of contract work, is that German satellite builder OHB has been made a part of the Thales Alenia Space bid. We have also put a ceiling on the amount of work on each contract that can be performed by the prime contractor in-house.


But the industrial landscape is such that Thales Alenia Space and Astrium Satellites are almost certain to be prime contractors for this. Can you force competition?

We believe we have structured the program to ensure a competitive scenario for all the major elements.


Some European governments, especially Germany, want to build a data-relay satellite system to speed delivery of Earth observation data. Others say data relay in Europe would be mainly for military use, and that ESA shouldn’t pay for it without military contributions. What is your view?


Our Sentinel 2 and 3 satellites will be equipped with laser communications terminals to relay data to geostationary satellites, and then to ground stations and we hope a data-relay system will be approved. But we are preparing to live without this if we have to in designing these satellites and the associated ground segment.

This is not something just for security or military applications. We have been using our Artemis data-relay satellite for years to download Earth observation data from our Envisat satellite and this has created new services that would not exist without the data-relay capability.


Your ERS-2 and Envisat radar satellites are both past their contracted service lives. How long will they last?

Well, the history of Earth observation satellites suggests they’ll last until they don’t and you can’t predict the end. For now, we’re assuming ERS-2 will be operated until late 2010, with Envisat until 2013.


What avenues do you see for increased collaboration with NASA on Earth observation?

We will be meeting with NASA this fall to discuss areas of cooperation for future missions. A review of NASA’s Earth science decadal survey shows there is no real duplication between our two agencies. There are some missions that are complementary. Some missions have similar targets, but use different methodologies.

One idea we have is to propose that NASA or other nations fly instruments as co-passengers on launchers we book for our satellites. This would be easier, and require less advance planning, than leaving actual space on one of our satellites for a hosted payload.


You have begun a selection process for your 7th Earth Explorer mission, and you recently selected three finalists. Was this done with NASA involvement?

No, we had wanted to act together on this, with a joint call for ideas for example. But they had to postpone their decision, so we moved forward. But I am determined to continue along these lines in the future.


The European Commission is co-funding with you the broad GMES program, including the Sentinels. Commission officials say they want to know by late this year how much this program will cost for operations, maintenance and satellite replenishment. What do you tell them?


We were asked to produce ideas for a long-term GMES operations scenario and the figure is around 430 million euros ($626 million) per year. That includes maintenance and satellite replacement costs — for example, “C” unit models of the Sentinels. It also includes one new line, called Sentinel-S, for security. It will be a long process to make operational a line of environmental satellites, but that is the goal.

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