By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News, The Hague
Ministers took the view that hi-tech investments would help the economy
Member states of the European space agency (Esa) have agreed a 10bn-euro budget at their meeting in The Hague.
The figure, which covers the next three to five years, represents a substantial increase in funding.
Ministers said the investment in space would help European industry pull through the current economic downturn.
The new money will help build new Earth observation satellites, maintain Esa's participation in the space station, and fund probes to the planets.
"The decisions of this ministerial conference are very important just in the middle of an economic crisis," said Peter Hintze, the minister who led the German delegation.
"Because money paid for high technology is good money for the European economy; and I think it will help us to leave the economic crisis [behind] and to gain new economic strength," he told BBC News.
It took the science ministers from Esa's 18 member states two days of intense discussions to arrive at the budget figure.
Agency officials had drawn up a "wish list" valued at 10.4bn euros and hoped to get at least 90% of that figure. It the end, their expectations were exceeded, with the meeting approving a budget line of 9.9bn - over a billion more than the commitments made the last time the ministers met in Berlin in 2005.
"I never expected that," conceded Esa director general Jean-Jacques Dordain.
"It demonstrates that the member states, number one, believe in what space can do for the citizens; number two, they believe in Esa as a successful organisation; and number three, that in a period of economic crisis, this is the right time to invest into the future."
In 2008, Europe attached its Columbus lab to the space station
The two biggest contributors were Germany, at 2.7bn, and France at 2.3bn. The Italians contributed just over a billion; the UK just under a billion.
The new budget will allow Esa to grow its basic science programme, at 3.5% a year, whilst at the same time starting a number of new programmes.
Europe's Ariane 5 rocket, which has come to dominate the commercial launcher market, will now be upgraded to allow it to carry heavier payloads than its current nine-tonne limit.
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 second phase was approved of the world's most ambitious environmental monitoring project, known as GMES. This will take the "pulse" of the planet and requires a series new Earth observation satellites to be launched.
A project to build the next generation of meteorological satellites was also funded. This project actually received more money than was requested, such was the interest from France and Germany.
A study will work out how a re-entry capsule can be added to Europe's ATV
In addition, Europe will now take the first step in a plan that could eventually lead to a manned spaceship based on the robotic ATV space-station cargo-vessel.
A feasibility study will be undertaken to work out how a re-entry capsule could be added to the freighter, first to bring materials safely back from the space station but eventually, also, humans.
"The configuration of the capsule would be designed taking into account the manned version," said Simonetta Di Pippo, Esa's director of human spaceflight.
"So once we've done the first step with the cargo version in, say 2017, we can move quickly towards the manned capsule because the configuration was the right one from the beginning and we won't have wasted time and money passing through the cargo version," she told BBC News.
Agency officials cautioned, however, that a crew ship was a long-term goal and depended on the money being available in the future to build it, and on the need for such a spacecraft given that the objectives of European space nations could change in the next few years.
In any case, a manned ATV would not fly before the end of the next decade.
One of the key decisions for the UK at this meeting centred on ExoMars, the robotic rover Esa intends to send to the Red Planet in 2016 to search for microbial life.
The mission has been delayed because of its high cost and the meeting was asked to make good the shortfall that exists in the one-billion-euro budget.
Not all the money was promised in The Hague, but most observers here thought the funding would be made up in time. The UK science minister Lord Drayson said the important point was that ExoMars had been accepted by member states as an important mission for Esa.
"This is a really exciting project," he told BBC News. "It builds again on the UK expertise in robotics. We expect to have a key part of the technology which enables the mission to take place, and it will be fascinating to see whether we do find evidence of life on Mars."
On the robotics theme, the meeting also saw the agreement of Jean-Jacques Dordain to put an Esa research centre in the UK. This will focus on space robotics and climate change science.
In another significant move, Britain pledged 121m euros to the Advanced Research in Telecommunication Systems (Artes) programme. This will go into the development of ever more sophisticated satellite payloads - a particular strength of the UK.
This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.