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Report Calls for Sweeping Rethink of Swedish Space Spending

Part of the report’s value is that it appears to have been prepared by space-sector outsiders. It expresses surprise that when ESA’s large Envisat environment-monitoring satellite failed in early 2012, there was no reserve satellite in orbit that could be deployed as a backup. Credit: CNES artist's concept

PARIS — A government audit of Sweden’s national space program and its 1 billion Swedish krona ($158 million) in annual spending is calling for more government oversight of the European Space Agency (ESA) and a review of the Swedish Space Corp.’s structure and mission.

In a report released Feb. 14 that it says is long overdue, the Swedish National Audit Office says Swedish space investment is distributed among multiple organizations that operate as stovepipes with no real communication between them and no common ambition.

Two-thirds of Sweden’s annual space budget goes to the 20-nation ESA, but unlike European Union spending this budget is not submitted for regular review to the Swedish parliament, according to the audit.

The audit suggests that Swedish national policy may not find full satisfaction in ESA spending because Sweden, as a relatively small ESA player, cannot always win valuable contracts for its industry. Sweden’s Esrange launch facility, it says, is of increasing importance to Sweden and may need special attention.

A lack of investment in the space sector is making it difficult for Swedish space companies to grow, meaning the ultimate value of the space program — to sustain a high-technology sector and promote economic growth in addition to providing services such as weather forecasting — is not fully realized, the report says.

Part of the report’s value is that it appears to have been prepared by space-sector outsiders. It expresses surprise that when ESA’s large Envisat environment-monitoring satellite failed in early 2012, there was no reserve satellite in orbit that could be deployed as a backup.

With Envisat gone, it says, Swedish authorities have been forced to pay for imagery of Baltic Sea algae blooms, which is a priority environmental survey. ESA officials have said that few of their satellites ever have in-orbit backup, a safety measure that would be costly for an organization focused on research and development.

Europe’s Eumetsat meteorological satellite organization maintains in-orbit backup satellites to retain its reliability as an operational service. The European Union and ESA are designing an environmental network called GMES/Copernicus that is supposed to have in-orbit backup but is facing financial challenges at the European Union.

The audit says the patchwork of Europe’s government space sector — ESA, the European Union’s commission, individual governments — makes it difficult to get a handle on what the overall space policy is, and difficult to measure whether the goals are being reached.

It specifically calls for an impact assessment of Europe’s policy of investing heavily in launch vehicles to preserve an independent access to space through successive generations of the Ariane launcher and, more recently, Europe’s use of Russia’s Soyuz rocket and the Italian-led development of the Vega small-satellite launcher.

The report stops short of criticizing the policy directly. But it says there has been no assessment of whether the long-term costs to Sweden are more than matched by the benefits of not being dependent on non-European rockets.

The Swedish Space Corp., which is owned by the Swedish government, did not meet its profitability targets in 2011. The audit suggests that these targets are not valid for a company whose business is mainly with government customers.

The Swedish Space Corp., which is owned by the Swedish government, did not meet its profitability targets in 2011. The audit suggests that these targets are not valid for a company whose business is mainly with government customers.

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