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ESA gets clear run from Ministers

By | December 6, 2001

      The European Space Agency’s latest ministerial-level Council meeting (the supreme organ of the agency, composed of member-state government ministers with responsibility for ‘space affairs’), had a surprisingly fruitful meeting at Edinburgh on November 14-15.

      German Federal Research Minister Edelgard Buhlman, who took over the chair from her British counterpart Lord Sainsbury, chaired the meeting. Buhlman said she was surprised by the level of agreement achieved. This was despite the fact that the economic and financial situation had deteriorated in almost every member state, due in part to the events of September 11. Nonetheless, ESA received funding which should keep major projects on course until 2006.

      To start with, the Ariane 5 programme received 1.6 billion euros. Of this, almost 700 million euros will be devoted to the third and final step of the Ariane 5-plus project, completion of development work on the EC-B stage with its Vinci cryogenic engine, which will bring lift capacity up to 12 tonnes in geostationary transfer orbit.

      Fixed costs of the AR.5 launch complex and funding of the Guiana Space Centre at Kourou will receive a total of 554.65 million euros from ESA, which should do much to put the economics of these facilities in relative parity with U.S. launch installations, the costs of which have historically been largely borne by the U.S. government. One proposed element covering plans to install facilities for operating the Russian Soyuz launcher from Kourou were not on the agenda for discussion at Edinburgh.

      Telecommunications programmes, largely included within the various ARTES sub-projects, and received a total of 1.5 billion euros. This included 133.85 million euros for a new venture, the “Large Platform” a.k.a. “AlphaBus”, for a satellite in excess of seven tonnes mass; as much as 350 million euros is earmarked for additional ARTES spending, and some of this may be devoted for a payload for AlphaBus.

      The satellite is already being targeted as a project for Alcatel Space and Astrium; as for Alenia Spazio, Italy’s space agency ASI had not allocated any funding to ARTES by the close of the meeting, but was set down as being ‘about to contribute’ 220 million euros.

      Also bracketed under “telecommunications” in the final ESA document was the Galileo project for a satellite navigation constellation, ultimately to consist of about 30 satellites in a medium Earth orbit; this is about to advance into its development and validation phase, which will involve orbiting some 3-5 satellites and installing a representative ground control segment, by 2005. Towards this, ESA has allocated 527.87 million euros: but this is contingent upon receiving a matching contribution from the European Union’s Transport Council, which is set to meet on December 7. The only indication of whether this will happen was encouraging remarks from EU president Romano Prodi, participating for the first time in an ESA Council meeting.

      The biggest sufferer at Edinburgh was the Earth Observation Envelope Programme (EOEP) for the period 2003-2007, which was cut back from almost 1.7 billion euros by some 772.5 million euros, a reduction of around 45%. This will certainly involve some programme stretch-outs if not cancellations. However, the Global Monitoring of Environment and Security (GMES) project, another one strongly supported by the European Union, did receive 83 million euros initial funding.

      Another major line-item that was temporarily (one hopes) put into the pending tray was utilization funding for the International Space Station, a NASA-led programme in which ESA, Japan’s NASDA and the Canadian Space Agency have already made significant commitments. The ISS is already in deep trouble – it is some $5 billion over budget – and NASA is hinting that the station might be cut down to a three-crew basis permanently, from the seven originally intended. This, say observers, would involve astronauts devoting all their time to performing housekeeping duties, with little or no time available to performing serious science work.

      But NASA has just appointed a new administrator, Sean O’Keefe, who following congressional approval will replace Dan Golding. Until he is in place and declares NASA’s permanent intentions, ESA is blocking some 60% (around 708 million euros) of its allocation for Space Station utilization until late next year.

      –Chris Bulloch

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