November 24, 2008

European Science Ministers Meet To Establish Space Plans

European science ministers are gathered at The Hague this week to determine which policies and programs they will approve for the next three years.

The 18 member states of the European Space Agency (ESA) have over 9 billion euros ($12 billion) at their disposal, and will discuss how to best allocate the funds.

The agenda of the Council Meeting at Ministerial Level was established ahead of the talks, where science ministers will approve ESA's plans and set budget limits on major program areas.

The ministers are widely expected to approve funding for ongoing activities, such as ESA's involvement in the space station, but will also initiate a variety of new projects involving new space technologies and Earth-monitoring satellites.

According to the ESA club's membership rules, nations must contribute a proportion of the annual 3bn-euro budget according to their economic weight. These funds will cover the agency's major science initiatives.  Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA's director general, wants contributions to increase by 3.6% annually, which would equate to 2.3bn euros from 2009-2013.

However, Dordain rejects the idea that the global economic slowdown would translate into less investment in space programs.

"This is the right moment to take the decisions to make the future more secure and more beautiful than the present," he told BBC News.

"In space, you are investing for the next five or 10 years, meaning that space cannot be dependent on economic cycles which are disturbing the situation of today but which will not disturb the future."

In addition to ESA's required programs, there is also an "a la carte" menu of space programs that will be reviewed at the meeting.  Member states will be able to select the level at which they participate in these projects.

There is always a great deal of anticipation at the ministerial meeting to see which nations are drawn to which optional programs, and how much they are prepared to contribute.

For example, Germany and France are the largest supporters of the most costly voluntary programs, the ones involving the space station and Europe's Ariane rocket project. These two areas alone account for roughly one-third of ESA's entire budget.

Britain, however, has decided not to invest these programs. Its attention will be focused instead on other initiatives it considers better match its expertise. This includes the ExoMars robot rover that ESA plans to send to the Mars in 2016.

Although Britain has financially supported the mission, it has grown significantly in scope and cost in the three years since ministers initiated the project.  The Hague meeting must approve this "enhanced ExoMars", and Britain will have to renegotiate its position.

"This is a very important and exciting project in terms of going to Mars and exploiting the area where the UK has real world-class expertise, in robotics," Lord Drayson, Britain's science minister, told BBC News.

"Although [ExoMars] has been delayed, we are very excited about the potential of this project," he said.

The mission's price has been limited to one billion euros ($1.3 billion), but is currently 360 million euros ($466 million) short.  Italy, which provided most of the project's initial funding, has recently indicated it will pick up some of the cost overruns.  Britain is expected to fund a portion of the excess cost as well.

ESA is as much involved in industry as science.  Indeed, current agency rules indicate a direct relationship between the amount of money a nation contributes to agency programs and the value of the industrial contracts it receives in return.   In other words, the larger the investment, the larger the industrial return.

Germany is widely expected to invest in a number of projects, including one to build Europe's next-generation weather satellites, known as MTG (Meteosat Third Generation).  The funding would guarantee substantial work for Germany's space companies.


Image Caption: ExoMars rover - phase B1 concept Credits: ESA


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