Page last updated at 15:53 GMT, Monday, 24 November 2008
Europe's 10bn euro space vision

By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News, The Hague

European astronaut Hans Schlegel walks outside Columbus
In 2008, Europe attached its Columbus lab to the space station

How to spend at least 9bn euros is the question facing European science ministers gathering in The Hague.

The 18 member states of the European Space Agency (Esa) are meeting in the Dutch city to approve policies and programmes for the next three years.

They will sanction funding for ongoing activities, such as Esa's involvement in the space station; but they will also initiate a range of new projects.

These cover new space technologies and Earth-monitoring satellites.

This is the right moment to take the decisions to make the future more secure and more beautiful than the present
Jean-Jacques Dordain, Esa
The agenda of the Council Meeting at Ministerial Level was drawn up in advance of the talks. Science ministers will approve Esa's plans and place budget limits on the major programme areas.

The membership rules of the Esa "club" stipulate that nations must pick up a large chunk of the annual 3bn-euro budget according to their economic weight. This money covers the main science activities of the agency.

'Right time'

Esa's director general, Jean-Jacques Dordain, wants the subscriptions going into this area to grow by 3.6% per year, giving him 2.3bn euros two play with over the period 2009-2013.

Esa flags (Esa)
Esa now numbers 18 member states and is set to grow still further

He rejects the notion that global financial difficulties should mean less investment in space.

"This is the right moment to take the decisions to make the future more secure and more beautiful than the present," Mr Dordain said.

"In space, you are investing for the next five or 10 years, meaning that space cannot be dependent on economic cycles which are disturbing the situation of today but which will not disturb the future."

In addition to the mandatory programmes of Esa, there is also an "a la carte" menu of space programmes on offer at the meeting; and member states can choose the level at which they enrol in these projects.

Ariane launch (Esa)
The Ariane 5 rocket is a symbol of Europe's independence in space

The excitement of the ministerial meeting is always to see which nations are drawn to which optional programmes, and how much they are prepared to invest.

Germany and France, for example, are the biggest backers of the most expensive voluntary programmes - the ones that cover the space station and Europe's Ariane rocket project. Together these two areas account for about a third of Esa's budget.

UK interests

The UK, on the other hand, will not invest these ventures. In The Hague, its attention will be focused on other items that it considers better fit with its expertise and ambitions. This would include the ExoMars robot rover that Esa hopes to send to the Red Planet in 2016.

Rover prototype
A bigger ExoMars mission needs to be approved by ministers

Britain has put its financial muscle behind the mission but in the three years since ministers initiated the project, it has grown in scope and cost. The Hague meeting must sign off this "enhanced ExoMars", and that means the UK having to renegotiate its position.

"This is a very important and exciting project in terms of going to Mars and exploiting the area where the UK has real world-class expertise, in robotics," said Britain's science minister, Lord Drayson.

"Although [ExoMars] has been delayed, we are very excited about the potential of this project," he told BBC News.

The cost of the mission has been capped at a billion euros but is currently short of the 360m euros needed to make it happen. Italy, which provided most of the initial funding in 2005 to lead the project, has recently indicated it will pick up some of the spill-over.

Britain, which has number two status on ExoMars, would be expected to pay a portion of the extra bill, also.

Esa is as much about industry as it is science; and under agency rules, there is a direct relationship between the amount of money a nation puts into agency programmes and the value of the industrial contracts it gets back. The bigger the investment, the bigger the industrial return.

It is understood that Germany will be coming to the meeting with major investment planned on a number of projects, including one to build the next generation of Europe's weather satellites, known as MTG (Meteosat Third Generation).

If it does that, Germany will guarantee substantial work for its space companies.

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