21st Mar 2019

EU pledges billions for space programme

  • Europeans have delayed their scheduled Mars trip by three years. (Photo: European Space Agency / NASA)

European ministers pledged €10 billion for space programmes, saying that investments in high technology would help the continent's economy regain strength, currently very much weakened by the ongoing crisis.

"Investing money in long-term space projects is an appropriate answer to the economic crisis," French education minister Valerie Pecresse said on Wednesday (27 November) after a two-day ministerial meeting in the Hague aimed at securing the budget for the European Space Agency (ESA).

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The new money would help build new Earth observation satellites and maintain ESA's participation in the International Space Station, which celebrated its tenth anniversary last week.

"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," Peter Hintze, German state secretary for technology told BBC News.

Headquarterd in Paris, the ESA consists of 18 countries – EU's old 15 member states, plus Switzerland, Norway and the Czech Republic.

Agency officials had drawn up a "wish list" valued at €10.4 billion and hoped to get at least 90 percent of that figure. But their expectations were exceeded, with the meeting approving a budget line of €9.9 billion - over one 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. "These are investments that can help the economy. This is the right time invest in the future," he added during a press conference.

The two biggest contributors were Germany, at €2.7 billion, and France at €2.3 billion. The Italians contributed just over a billion; the UK just under a billion.

The compromise allows ESA to seek up to an extra €400 million for the ISS if needed to pay industry on time. Germany had expressed concerns that any funding shortfall would mean penalties for late payment and penalise German plants.

"The real question is the future of the ISS after 2015, when the United States has said it will stop using it," an ESA delegate told Reuters.

Backers of the project want to get the most benefit out of the station before 2010, when NASA plans to stop flying shuttle missions, relying solely on Russia's Soyuz to transport crew and leaving few options for returning significant amounts of cargo.

Mars mission delayed

European ministers fell short, however, in securing the necessary funding for ExoMars, Europe's mission to Mars, now set to blast off in 2016, three years behind schedule. The project, championed by Italy, would see rover landing on the planet's surface and drilling down two metres to take soil soundings.

Ministers capped their contribution to ExoMars at €1 billion, leaving another €200 million be funded through co-operation with NASA or Russia. The cost of the project has roughly doubled since an earlier plan.

Yet UK science minister Paul Drayson told the BBC it was important that ExoMars had been accepted by member states as an important mission for ESA. "This is a really exciting project," he said. "It builds again on the UK expertise in robotics. We expect to have a key part of the technology that enables the mission to take place, and it will be fascinating to see whether we do find evidence of life on Mars."

Dutch develop EU climate satellite

Meanwhile, Dutch economics minister Maria van der Hoeven was lobbying for collective EU financing of a new climate satellite to be developed by the Netherlands.

The Dutch government has reserved €78 million to finance the €115- to 130-million tropospheric ozone monitoring instrument, or Tropomi.

The 18 European ministers said the new satellite would be launched in 2014.

"The data provided by the Tropomi will enable the Dutch Royal Meteorological Institute to provide accurate data about smog," Ms van der Hoeven said.

The Tropomi is a measuring instrument for ozone in the troposphere, the lowest part of the atmosphere and containing 80 per cent of the world's air.

"This camera can see through each cloud," said Nico van der Putten, manager of the Dutch Aerospace Research Institute NIVR.

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