Page last updated at 22:08 GMT, Thursday, 27 November 2008
Europe's 10bn euro space vision



By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News, The Hague

Ariane 5 (Esa)
Maintaining an independent launch system is a core activity for Esa

The 18 member states of the European Space Agency (Esa) and Canada met in The Hague to approve policies and programmes for the next three to five years.

The agenda for the Council Meeting at Ministerial Level 2008 was drawn up in advance of the talks by Esa's executive. Research ministers then held two days of talks before approving the agency's plans and putting in place a budget to support them.

The final budget figure agreed in the Dutch city was 9.948bn euros.

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

But there is also an "a la carte" menu of space programmes and member states can choose the level at which they enrol in these projects.

The most expensive items concern Europe's launcher programme and its involvement in the space station. Together, these two areas account for a further third of the budget.

The four largest contributors to Esa in the new budget period will be Germany (2.7bn euros); France (2.3bn); Italy (1.2bn); and UK (0.8bn)

Some key themes covered at The Hague meeting:

ESA'S SCIENCE PROGRAMME

The agency was looking to grow the budget going into its mandatory science programme by 3.5% per year. This was approved. Esa must soon choose two flagship missions for the next decade under its Cosmic Visions programme. One of these is likely to be a probe that investigates either Jupiter and its moons, or Saturn and its moons. Such is the cost of this type of venture that it is almost certain to be undertaken in partnership with other agencies, most probably the US space agency (Nasa).

INDEPENDENT ACCESS TO SPACE

Improving coming back from space

One of Esa's core duties is to maintain a rocket programme, ensuring Europe never has to rely on others to launch its satellites.

The Ariane 5 has become the dominant commercial vehicle in today's launcher market; but investment is needed to give it a more powerful second stage, to keep it competitive. This will enable Ariane to push 2-3 tonnes more than the current nine tonnes towards geostationary orbit some 36,000km above the Earth. The meeting agreed to spend 357m euros on this between now and 2011.

Esa also wants to study what comes after Ariane; to consider what the launchers of the future will look like. Its future launchers preparatory programme (FLPP) received 169.5m. FLPP will also test the technologies required on demonstration spacecraft such as the Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV).

DEVELOPING RE-ENTRY TECHNOLOGIES

Esa considers the next step for ATV

Ministers agreed to put almost 1.4bn euros into the ongoing activities at the International Space Station - the single biggest "ticket" on The Hague agenda.

Doubts persist that this will be sufficient to meet Esa's commitments, in particular to launch all of its contracted unmanned ATV freighters to the platform. But ministers agreed that if more money was required, agency officials could ask for it at a later stage.

The ATV (Automated Transfer Vehicle) has been a major success for Esa. On its inaugural flight this year, this highly sophisticated spacecraft carried more than five tonnes of cargo to the space station.

The agency would like now to build on its success. Currently, the ATV burns up on re-entry to the Earth's atmosphere. The Hague meeting approved a study that will investigate how the spacecraft can be modified to bring cargo safely back to the ground. This Advanced Re-Entry Vehicle (ARV) would be the first step to what could eventually become a European manned spaceship.

An important conference will take place next year to try to define a strategy for the manned exploration of space.

The outcome of this conference and the ARV study will influence the decision to go for a crewed ATV.

BUILDING AN EARTH MONITORING SYSTEM

Esa's Earth monitoring satellites

In recent years, Esa has begun two major joint projects with the European Union (Esa and the EU are legally distinct entities). One project will build a satellite-navigation system known as Galileo, the other will construct the world's largest environmental monitoring programme known as GMES. The latter will pull together satellite and Earth-gathered data to get a compete health-check on planet Earth. The ministerial meeting approved 831m euros for the second phase of the project which requires heavy investment in new Earth observing satellites. Ministers also approved 943m euros to build Meteosat Third Generation (MTG), which as the name suggests is the next generation of weather satellites to provide our daily forecasts. Germany and France will each carry 34% of this sum.

DATA RELAY IN SPACE

On demand satellite data network

Europe is lacking an important capability in space - the ability to pass data seamlessly through a network of satellites. At the moment, Europe's Earth observing spacecraft may have to hold on to their data for many hours before downlinking that information when they are in sight of a dedicated ground station. Such a delay could have serious implications if the data was needed for example to organise an emergency response to a natural disaster. The Hague meeting approved a European Data Relay Satellite (EDRS) programme to speed the communication of data between spacecraft so that information can come down to Earth much faster.

EUROPE'S PLANS FOR MARS

At the last ministerial meeting in 2005, the go-ahead was given to design a mission that would land a robot rover on Mars. A little over 660m euros was provided. But when scientists and engineers considered the plans in detail, they realised it could not be done for less than a billion euros. So Esa came back to ministers to ask for a further 360 million euros. The two lead nations on the project did provide more cash (Italy committed 30m; the UK gave 60m), but the Esa executive is still short of the total required by about 170m. The subscription option has been left open until late 2009, but Esa director general Jean-Jacques Dordain says he is relaxed about finding the outstanding money in due course.

The agency was also given 24m euros to start to work out how rocks could be returned from Mars for study in Earth labs. This Mars Sample Return mission is a decade away - at least - from happening.

PROTECTING EUROPE'S SPACE ASSETS

Space-borne services are now so important that critical failures in key satellites could have major economic implications. Space is a dangerous place, and communications and Earth observing satellites are at risk of damage from orbiting debris and the high energy particles streaming away from the Sun. Esa was given 49.5m euros to start a Space Situational Awareness programme that would monitor and try to mitigate these threats. Activities would range from tracking old space junk to producing better forecasts of the type of "space weather" known to be harmful to satellite electronics.

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk

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