The European Space Agency has just 15 months before it is expected to launch the European Union's first Sentinel Earth observation satellite to orbit. But with no clear commitment from the EU to fund spacecraft operations once it gets there, ESA is starting to panic.
One of a trio of satellites planned under the EU's Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program, the Sentinel 1A is designed to address continuity of SAR data, the need for which has become more urgent since the sudden and somewhat surprising loss of Europe's Envisat Earth observation mission last month.
Despite that urgency, however, and despite having co-invested billions with ESA in GMES development, including the Sentinel satellites, the European Commission remains steadfastly opposed to funding €5.84 billion for GMES operations inside its next multi-year budget.
The Commission, which serves as the executive arm of the EU, has co-invested with ESA over €3 billion to develop GMES, including construction of the Sentinel and associated ground infrastructure.
In its proposed Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) for 2014-2020, however, the Commission "underlined the importance of GMES but at the same time made it clear that such a huge program should be financed outside the EU budget," said Paul Weissenberg, a representative who spoke on behalf of Commission Vice President Antonio Tajani during a two-day GMES conference in Copenhagen June 4-5.
Instead, the Commission proposes an intergovernmental agreement to fund GMES through financial contributions from all 27 EU member states based on gross national income, an idea wildly unpopular with most ESA member governments and the European Parliament.
ESA officials had hoped for a break in the stalemate in May, when the Council of the European Union, under the leadership of the current Danish presidency, was expected to include GMES in the so-called "negotiating box" of projects to be funded within the MFF. Although GMES was cited in a May 24 letter from the Council presidency to member delegations, the Danes made it clear that funding for GMES is just as uncertain as it was a year ago, when the Commission proposed removing it.
Mauro Facchini, director general of the Commission's GMES bureau, says the Commission continues to work toward a solution. But unless EU member states propose increasing the budget, negotiations will continue to be complicated by the broader impact of GMES funding on other EU policies.
“Unfortunately, the amount of money that is made available by the member states for 2014-20 is lower than the different challenges the EU will have to face in this period,” he said. “The member states are fully in a situation to … tell us to change, but what happened in the last six months is that the member states didn't show a common agreement to go against what the Commission is proposing.”
Anne Jensen, a member of European Parliament, said the estimated €5.84 billion needed for GMES operations is a lot of money, but still “less than half a percent of the EU budget.”
Excluding GMES from the MFF “is not going to save the national budgets,” she said. “So we're asking the Commission to come forward with a proposal that takes it out of the intergovernmental structure and puts it back to a community program.”
With the Danes set to exit the EU's rotating presidency at the end of this month, a decision on GMES funding will likely be made under the incoming leadership of Cyprus in the second half of 2012. But in the end, Facchini says, member states “will have to take their own responsibilities, either creating this fund or asking us to go in another direction.” In his remarks Facchini held out the possibility that ESA could decide to fund GMES operations on its own when its ruling council meets at the ministerial level in November, an option that ESA officials say their member states are loathe to do.
"We will not propose anything for the operations," says Volker Liebig, head of ESA's Earth observation programs. "With €1.6 billion invested for GMES infrastructure, our member states have already gone a bit further than they wanted."
As a result of the stalemate, he says, ESA is now two weeks late in meeting a contractual obligation with launch provider Arianespace to negotiate a three-month launch window for the first Sentinel spacecraft in the fourth quarter of 2013.
Josef Aschbacher, head of the GMES space office in Frascati, Italy, said ESA's ruling council has instructed the agency not to launch the Sentinel satellites in the absence of Commission funding to operate them.
“Today we don't have that, so we have a decision to make by June, within a couple of days, what we do with the launch of Sentinel 1A,” he said.
Until recently, the agency had been using the need to reserve a launch window for Sentinel 1A to leverage a funding commitment from the Commission. But with the recent loss of Envisat and the need to maintain data continuity, Sentinel 1A could could bring more pressure to bear once in orbit.
“Our member states will decide through the council what the recommendation will be, but discussion between the Commission and the ESA executive would favor a launch as soon as possible, hoping that the funding solution will be found along the way.”
In the meantime, ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain sent a letter to Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso asking for interim funding for GMES until the funding issue is resolved. ESA officials estimate that the first year of Sentinel 1A operations, including installation of associated ground infrastructure that was put on hold until funding issues can be resolved, equates to roughly €75 million. Together, the first three Sentinel spacecraft are expected to cost around €175 million a year to operate.
Barosso had yet to respond to Dordain's letter, but Facchini noted that funding under the current MFF through the end of 2013 is already committed, and that the likelihood of finding interim funding for GMES is remote.
“The margins are limited to nonexistent,” he said. “I don't really see very easily how it will be possible to find this bridging.”