By Paul Rincon
Science Reporter, BBC News
Europe is now an international partner in space
At the end of November, delegations from the European Space Agency's 18 member states will meet in the Hague to decide the course of Europe's space programme over the next three years.
Ministers from these countries will be invited to endorse a range of new programmes, including Europe's flagship rover mission ExoMars, and an ambitious international venture to return rocks and soil from the Red Planet.
Also under consideration are Europe's plans to participate in a manned space transportation system.
And there are major new programmes to co-ordinate satellite monitoring of the environment and space surveillance.
With so much on the agenda, and with European nations languishing in the grip of a financial crisis, this meeting is likely to be fraught with incident, controversy and, for some, disappointment.
Jean-Jacques Dordain, director-general of the European Space Agency (Esa), is the man who must balance the desires against the money available.
"There are many more proposals than member states have money," he told me.
"This is good news."
Mr Dordain recently announced that he would be seeking at least 9bn euros from ministers next week to fund new and existing projects. Sources told BBC News that Esa had previously been targeting a budget of roughly 14bn euros.
Mr Dordain must balance desires against money available
The Esa director-general recently commented that the addition of Europe's science module Columbus to the International Space Station (ISS) and a successful first mission for its ATV cargo transfer vehicle have transformed Esa from an international partner on the ground to one in space.
But the agency is not planning to stop there. Europe, long reliant on the US and Russia for transporting its astronauts into orbit, is working towards a spaceship of its own.
However, key decisions on this programme are likely to be reserved for some future date.
"I am convinced that Europe should be part of a future crew transportation system," says Mr Dordain.
"But before arriving at that point in time, we have to consolidate our capabilities. And this is what we are trying to do by proposing an evolution of the ATV."
He added: "I plan to continue to consider co-operation with Russia. But it is clear we will not decide any development of crew transportation in 2008. This is for further steps."
In its current configuration, the ATV burns up in the atmosphere after delivering its cargo to the ISS. The evolved version will be able to survive re-entry, bringing cargo from the space station back to Earth.
Re-entry technology will allow Europe to develop a spaceship that can transport astronauts back from orbit in one piece.
And last year, aerospace giant EADS Astrium unveiled a concept for an even more advanced iteration of the ATV capable of carrying a human crew into space.
Michael Menking, senior vice-president for orbital systems and exploration at EADS Astrium in Germany, said: "The intention of Esa is to do this in two or more steps.
"The first step is to bring cargo back down to Earth, which means having re-entry capability. With the ATV we have shown we are able to do autonomous or automatic docking. The technology that is missing is this re-entry capability.
"The point is first to develop it and then there is the possibility to use it in a crewed version."
But Esa is already one half of a partnership with Russia on a programme known as the Crew Space Transportation System (CSTS). This manned vehicle is envisaged as replacing the Soyuz system used by Russia for decades.
The concept unveiled by EADS is said to have prompted consternation on the Russian side of the CSTS project.
Some observers regard human spaceflight capability as a luxury, and question the wisdom of ploughing funds into such an area in such lean times. But supporters argue that developing the know-how is a vital strategic goal for Europe's space agency.
"Space activities in Europe are based on partnerships. Nevertheless, it's also important for Europe to have the capability - the technologies - to provide these kinds of activities," says Michael Menking.
"Therefore it's up to the decision of the ministerial council if it will be done in a partnership approach or done up to a certain stage also autonomously.
"Re-entry capability is one of the most important capabilities we need for the future, not only for human spaceflight, but also for robotic missions. One would like to go to other planets, take probes and bring back samples."
ExoMars needs to be approved by ministers
Just such a mission will appear on the agenda in the Hague. Esa will ask ministers to back a joint mission between the US and Europe to bring back rocks and soil from Mars.
This mission is still some way off, but it is considered one of the highest priorities by space scientists on both sides of the Atlantic.
Before this sample return mission goes ahead, Europe has plans to land a robot on the Martian surface. ExoMars is Esa's flagship robotic mission to the Red Planet, where the rover will look for signs of past or present life.
But the launch recently had to be delayed from 2013 to 2016 because of the mission's spiralling cost, estimated at around 1.2bn euros.
The agency reasoned that the delay would allow them to fly the mission the way it wanted, with a full suite of 11 science instruments and a geophysics station to measure quakes deep in the Martian crust.
David Southwood, director of science at Esa, told BBC News: "I want to get together the enhanced Exomars, which has a lander and a rover and a drill to drill down.
"[This means carrying] a solid number of experiments doing a variety of tasks - doing exobiology, but also geophysical experiments. I would be crazy if I didn't look at the financial situation. But on the other hand you have to take a long-term view."
Officials are desperate to avoid watering down the mission in order to cut costs, but it will be up to ministers to decide the project's future.
Italy, the lead nation on ExoMars, made clear recently that it was not going to put in any more cash. So Esa has been casting the net wide to secure greater international involvement in the mission.
"Exomars is by far one of my priorities and I am working very hard to make sure we can fund it," says Jean Jacques Dordain.
"We have to make sure we find contributions from the member states. We are working on that including through international cooperation, on one side with Nasa and on the other with the Russians. Exomars is a very interesting mission."
Ministers will also be asked to endorse a European system to co-ordinate monitoring of the environment, particularly climate change.
GMES will co-ordinate monitoring of the environment
This project, called Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES), will draw together all the data from environmental satellites, air and ground stations to provide a comprehensive picture of the planet.
The satellite portion of the project, which was briefly known as Kopernikus, is overseen by Esa and comprises a constellation of five spacecraft called Sentinels.
"What we are proposing is to consolidate what we have started to do. What we have started is just the first satellite of three Sentinels… but to make an operational service, we need to have at least two satellites," says Jean-Jacques Dordain.
"Our proposal is to develop Sentinel 4 and 5 and to continue work on Sentinels 1, 2 and 3."
Decisions taken at the last ministerial meeting ensured the UK was only a bit-part player in this programme.
Sources maintain that British companies missed out on lucrative contracts because of the low level of funding committed to this project by the UK government three years ago.
Industry chiefs are now urging British space officials to change their stance and throw their weight behind this key programme.
"This is a crucial programme. At the last ministerial, the UK didn't really play the sort of role we would have expected," said Richard Peckham, the UKspace chairman, and business development director at EADS-Astrium in the UK.
Space is becoming increasingly cluttered
"Verbally, the UK has taken a lead on environment and climate. But when it came to the last ministerial, we stepped short of the mark."
A separate programme, called Space Situational Awareness (SSA) will seek to improve space surveillance of threats such as orbiting debris and near-Earth objects.
Despite the financial constraints on member states, European space officials are urging ministers to look beyond current difficulties and adopt a long-term, strategic view.
Europe, they say, must now build on recent achievements if it is not to lose ground to up and coming space powers such as China.
"We have to design programmes to deal with short-term dips and long-term gains," David Southwood says.
"Human beings have got where they are now by being open, by exploring, by building on science. A crisis in the banking system is a technical problem in the long-term scheme of things."
He adds: "I know I've got problems this particular year, but look at the goal - look at the Europe we want to be. Look at the role Europe should be playing out on the frontiers, along with the United States, along with Russia, maybe with China and India.
"Europe should be there if it is to be taken seriously."