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ESA Space Science, Earth Observation Budgets Take a Hit

Volker Liebig. Credit: ESA photo

NAPLES, Italy — Europe’s space science and Earth observation budgets were two of the casualties at the two-day meeting of European Space Agency (ESA) governments that ended here Nov. 21.

Other programs that will not be funded, at least not now, include a space weather mission with China and a satellite to test advanced Automatic Identification System (AIS) technologies for maritime surveillance.

ESA governments did agree to support a less-sophisticated AIS satellite, however.

ESA’s science budget will be held in place for the next five years at 508 million euros ($664.4 million) per year under a resolution adopted by the governments here.

The decision will mean an annual drop in purchasing power of 2 to 3 percent, depending on the inflation rate, and was a disappointment for ESA officials who had urged their governments to permit an increase of about 2 percent per year to preserve buying power.

But ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said that the budget decision is made slightly better by the fact that ESA has two new members, Romania and Poland, both of which will be contributing to the science program.

ESA has budgeted 479.7 million euros for science in 2012. The figure for 2013 is a nearly 6 percent increase with the Polish and Romanian contribution, but will be frozen through 2017 at 508 million euros.

Unlike most ESA activities, the science budget is funded by mandatory contributions from the agency’s member states, with contribution levels based on the size of each nation’s economy.

Because the budget is mandatory, it is left to the most financially fragile government to set the level of contributions. Several ESA governments are in the midst of government-debt crises that are forcing spending cuts.

ESA’s Earth observation budget regularly launches what ESA calls its Explorer satellites, whose missions are science oriented but are occasionally picked up for later use by meteorological agencies.

Earth observation has been ESA’s largest single program in the past couple of years and its managers had hoped to win support for a five-year package valued at 1.9 billion euros.

Indications from governments in recent months forced the agency to reduce that to 1.6 billion euros over four years, and then to 1.2 billion, saying it would have to cut one or more planned missions.

Even that proved not enough. The conference here agreed to spend 1 billion euros over four years starting in 2013.

ESA Earth Observation Director Volker Liebig knew that his task was made more complicated by the fact that ESA also was asking for a substantial investment in Europe’s next-generation polar meteorological satellite system, called Metop Second Generation.

Meteorological programs are rarely controversial at ESA, and when they are it is only because leading contributors fight among themselves for the right to be program leader.

Metop Second Generation is budgeted at about 3 billion euros for three pairs of satellites, one pair to succeed the other starting around 2020. Each pair will feature satellites with a sounder instrument and another with an imager instrument.

Following its historical practice with Europe’s Eumetsat meteorological satellite organization, ESA will be financing about 30 percent of the program, paying for most of the design and development of the first two satellites.

Darmstadt, Germany-based Eumetsat is responsible for the recurrent satellites and for their launches and operations.

After a rearrangement of payload roles involving the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Eumetsat and ESA, ESA governments agreed to spend 808 million euros on the second-generation Metop spacecraft, with France and Germany dividing the lead role between them. That was more than ESA originally intended to spend, and it may have undermined the other Earth observation program as it sought support here.

 

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