GMES: What ESA Doesn't Want to Hear


Amy Svitak writes:

Jean-Paul Malingreau, an adviser to the European Commission's Joint Research Center, says when it comes to environmental monitoring and security, Europe needs to become less satellite-centric.
“We need to continue to know what's going on around the world, but at the same time we have to move ahead and look at new technologies that can do that,” Malingreau said during the Space Days conference in Liege, Belgium Sept. 26-27.
Malingreau, a forward-focused thinker who advises the EC on scientific foresight and policy anticipation, was referring to Europe's showcase Earth observation project, Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES). More than a decade in the making, GMES was initiated by the Commission in 1998 to help sate its ever-growing hunger for geo-information data that impacts major EU policy areas – everything from climate change and disaster monitoring to deforestation and homeland security.
Together with the European Space Agency (ESA), the EC has sunk more than €3 billion into GMES, including design and construction of three Sentinel Earth observation satellites, the first of which is slated to launch next year. To date, work on the Sentinel spacecraft has gone according to plan. But last year, out of the blue, the EC proposed nixing a planned €5.8 billion in GMES operations and maintenance money from its multi-year budget, leaving ESA threatening to delay launch of the first Sentinel spacecraft until a funding commitment could be secured.
The R&D agency has since booked the launch for summer next year, asserting it is inconceivable that the EC would co-invest in development of a flagship space project without picking up its share of the tab. But while the budget stalemate continues, Malingreau says the EC's thinking on satellite-based geo-information data is evolving almost as rapidly as non-spaced-based alternatives to collecting and distributing it.
Here's what Malingreau had to say:
While the fundamental need for for GMES remains, “we need to recognize that the world has changed" over the past 14 years. "We have cyberspace, crowd mapping, crowd sourcing, sensors everywhere. There are emerging ways to do the job of GMES which are coming up on the horizon.”
Malingreau said there is little doubt the Sentinel satellites will be launched. “But technology is changing, and if we want to be intelligent we are going to go in the direction that is more neutral to the source, whether it is satellites or other ways."
While the objectives of GMES are still valid today, the technologies capable of meeting those objectives are changing: With GMES, "we have to use satellites designed almost 10 years ago," Malingreau says. "We need to continue to know what's going on around the world, but at same time we have to move ahead and look at new technologies that can do that."
In terms of funding the operational phase of GMES, “there are other ways to proceed now. That's where we are, starting to look at more innovative ways to proceed on this issue that may not satisfy fully the urgency of answering ESA on the budget, but that's the reality of the situation.”
Malingreau says funding the full €5.8 billion for GMES operations might be feasible if EU member states could suggest commensurate cuts elsewhere in the budget: “If you claim that this is strategically essential to Europe, you still have to say from where you take the money to implement it.”
From the Commission's perspective, GMES is less about satellite operations and more about “the provision of information for political bodies to do a better job, and we should increasingly be neutral to the sources of where that comes from.”
Malingreau stopped short of stating what the Commission has in mind for GMES in its forthcoming multi-year budget, though it's clear they won't fund the full €5.8 billion. While the Sentinel satellites are likely to be launched, the Commission could curtail funding for operating and maintaining them, leaving the private sector to step in more fully and government agencies to foot the bill for data services they're sure to need.

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