Page last updated at 17:08 GMT, Saturday, 27 March 2010

Frustration for new European Meteosat project

By Jonathan Amos
Science correspondent, BBC News

MTG spacecraft (Eumetsat)
Staring at the Earth: The MTGs will gather far more detail, faster

European nations like the scope of a multi-billion-euro project to upgrade their weather satellites, but they have not been able to push the scheme ahead.

A meeting of the Eumetsat organisation failed on Friday to approve all the documents related to the proposed Meteosat Third Generation programme.

Two of the agency's 26 member-states said they would reserve their votes.

The key dissenter is thought to be Germany which has ongoing issues with the share-out of industrial work.

Until all nations approve the content of the MTG programme, it cannot be opened for funding and cannot be implemented.

Angiolo Rolli, Eumetsat's director of administration, declined to name the two countries that withheld their votes at a special Council gathering, although he did acknowledge that the issue of work sharing was a factor.

"We hope the member-states will be able to resolve their reservations by the end of June," he told BBC News.

Industrial rivalry

MTG is one of the biggest and the most complex space projects ever undertaken in Europe.

The system will comprise six satellites, with the first spacecraft likely to be ready for launch in 2016.

MSG (Eumetsat)
Europe's 1st imaging satellite (800kg) was launched in 1977; it had just three channels
Today's 2nd generation imager (above) has 12 channels; it's a 2-tonne class spacecraft
The planned 3rd generation imager will be a 3-tonne satellite; it will have 16 channels
MTG adds a second platform: a sounding satellite to see the different layers in the atmosphere

They are expected to bring a step change in capability, resulting in more accurate and more detailed weather forecasts.

MTG is a joint undertaking between the European Space Agency (Esa) and Eumetsat, the international agency charged with looking after Europe's Meteosats.

In the new programme, Esa will oversee the research and development phase of MTG, and the building of its prototype satellites. Eumetsat, on the other hand, will oversee the ground control system and the future operation of the spacecraft.

Sorting out Esa's side of the programme has been a drawn-out process with both France and Germany competing to lead the project.

Earlier this month, Thales Alenia Space (France) was finally asked to enter negotiations for a 1.3bn euro contract, beating out EADS Astrium of Germany.

The award, however, is the subject of a review within Esa which will report in June, the same month the Eumetsat dissenters have promised to reconsider Friday's documents.

Large investments

Mr Rolli said he was encouraged by the general enthusiasm for the scope of the programme, and Eumetsat's side of it in particular.

"This I think is a very positive result we achieved on Friday, that there was a very large, almost unanimous, consensus on the content of the programme, which is not only the user requirements but the way the programme is going to be conducted and the financial envelope associated with it," he explained.

That envelope is 2.4bn euros (at 2008 prices).

When the content of the MTG programme is finally approved, member-states will then be asked to fund it. As a mandatory programme within Eumetsat, this means the contribution of each country will be based on its relative economic status (Gross National Income).

Under present circumstances, this means Germany, the UK, and France will be the main funders.

With the scale of investment Germany is also putting through the Esa side of MTG, it will become the project's biggest sponsor overall.

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