ESA seeks $2.6 billion for Earth observation programs, weighs Digital Europe investment in data storage/transmission
Josef Aschbacher. Credit: ESA video
WASHINGTON — The European Space Agency (ESA) is seeking 2.35 billion euros ($2.6 billion) from its governments to fund next-generation Sentinel satellites and other Earth observation programs.
The budget will be decided at ESA’s Space 19+ conference of ministers, scheduled to meet Nov. 27-28 in Seville, Spain.
The biggest slice of ESA’s proposed Earth observation budget, at 1.4 billion euros, is intended as ESA’s share of the European Commission’s Copernicus program over the next three years. The commission is proposing to spend 5.8 billion euros over seven years as part of its own 2021-2027 budget.
ESA’s Copernicus Space Component budget line stretches over nine years given the time it takes to build, launch and operate the satellites.
While Earth observation is a popular investment among ESA’s 22 governments — it has accounted for an average of 27% of ESA’s total annual budget since 2015 — the negotiations this year will be colored by the fog surrounding Brexit.
Britain has indicated that while it will be leaving the European Union, it will redouble its commitment to ESA: http://bit.ly/2kQWyfz
Even so, the Sentinel satellites’ appeal for ESA governments likes in their recurring business. The first models are built mainly with ESA funding, and follow-ons are funded by the European Commission. It is still not known whether Britain’s Brexit deal will leave it out of Copernicus with respect to the commission’s budget.
ESA’s second-large budget envelop is for what it calls Future EO, a series of missions focused on Earth observation science, many of which could make it into Copernicus once their technology has been validated. For Future EO, ESA is asking 650 million euros over three years.
The agency’s proposed InCubed+ program is looking for 150 million euros that would be matched, mission by mission, by private-sector investment.
Josef Aschbacher, ESA’s director of Earth observation, has welcomed the New Space movement and its focus on geospatial imagery and data analytics. Aschbacher hopes the private sector eventually will be able to take over some of what ESA does, leaving the agency to focus on the risker technologies.
In an interview here during the International Astronautical Congress (IAC), Aschacher said ESA has opened a dialogue with the European Commission’s DG-Connect to figure out how to store and distribute the current 250 terabytes per day of Copernicus data. It was 150 terabytes just a year ago.
You have said the European Commission’s proposed seven-year Copernicus budget, at 5.8 billion euros, is 2 billion euros short of previously set program goals. Where does this stand?
This has not changed. The same delta is still missing if we assume the same content and a confirmation of the Long-Term Scenario Content in 2021. We will have a review in 2021, when we will have the real cost from our Invitations to Tender (ITTs) to industry, which are now open. We are soliciting proposals from industry.
What is the schedule for selecting the winners from these ITTs for future Sentinel satellites?
Two will close in December and the rest, early next year. By then we’ll know ESA’s funding level and the Commission’s budget, and we should know what the Brexit situation is — a hard Brexit or a soft Brexit. If it is a soft Brexit, then the UK can negotiate an agreement with Brussels for 2021 and beyond.
All these things should be on the table by then, and other things as well, such as the state of performance of the current Sentinels. That will help us define a launch and deployment scenario for the next generation.
The European Space Agency manages three categories of Earth observation missions. Science missions are ESA’s own satellites, funded by its member governments. Copernicus is the European Commission’s large environment-monitoring network whose Sentinel satellites are developed by ESA and majority-financed by the commission. Similarly, meteorological missions are financed mainly by the 30-nation Eumetsat meteorological satellite organization, with ESA handling development. Credit: ESA
In 2021 we have our major review point with the commission, and with our member states, to decide how to proceed. That may have an impact on this 2-billion-euro issue and on our next funding slice on the ESA side.
The 2 billion that is missing was over seven years?
On the EU side, yes. For ESA funding, It covers three ESA ministerial — 2019, 2022 and 2025. But the period goes longer. Some of the activities extend beyond 2030 because of the start of the next generation of Sentinels.
And the shortfall you mention is set against commonly agreed to Copernicus program objectives?
Yes. I should stress that all six Sentinels whose ITTs are now out have the same priority. Some people say CO2 [the Sentinel 7 satellite] has the top priority. It does not. It is more urgent because we have a 2028 [United Nations] COP deadline for stock taking. To use Sentinel 7 for stock-taking in 2028, we need to launch by the end of 2025.
But ESA and the commission have signed statements saying that all six have the same priority. We are not de-selecting one or of delaying any of the six. They are all moving at the same speed but we have to have a firm late-2025 launch date for CO2.
When do you want responses by industry for Sentinel 7, the CO2 monitoring satellite?
It was part of the second batch, which means it’s around January 2020.
How will this 2-billion-euro deficit be absorbed by the program?
We don’t know. That’s why we have this decision point in 2021. If the UK joins the EU program, that, together with Norway and Switzerland [non-EU nations that are ESA members] would be roughly 1 billion euros. So the 2 billion becomes 1 billion — if the UK comes in at its usual GNP position. That would be a big addition.
The Sentinel 6A and 6B satellites, to launch starting in 2020, follow on from the U.S.-French Jason series of ocean altimetry satellites, which have been instrumental in measuring sea-surface rise since 1993. Sentinel 6A is a collaboration between ESA, NASA, Eumetsat and the U.S. NOAA. Credit: ESA
Another thing: Several of the Sentinels are scheduled to be launched in the 2028-29 time frame, but we included the launches to be fully paid in the current commission’s 2021-2027 budget.
Since they are launched after the budget period, this funding can be pushed out.
If the UK is not part of Copernicus at the EU, other companies will need to assume responsibility for the contracts UK companies have been managing with ESA money. How big a headache is that?
The nominal case is that the UK puts money into ESA and they get their money back, just like in all the other ESA programs. Of course, UK industry and the UK Space Agency are also interested in continuing with the follow-on, recurrent units. That’s the interesting part.
This option is already built in to the ITTs we have sent out. It says very clearly that in the event the UK is not joining the EU program, then the work has to be transferred from the UK into other countries.
But effects on the Sentinels’ budget and schedule?
Schedule wise there will be an impact, and also money-wise. This will require negotiations but this is foreseen and there is a very small delta cost which is foreseen to allow this to happen. It’s a very small amount.
From a programmatic point of view, having the UK on board makes a huge difference. They add a significant amount of money — whatever they subscribe to ESA and whatever they might bring through EU channels. That is good for a solid, stable Copernicus program, which is good for all the countries involved — France, Germany, Italy, everyone.
So embedded in your budget request is the expectation of a substantial UK contribution?
I do expect a very solid UK subscription, yes.
What is the Arctic program you’re proposing?
The Arctic Weather Satellite is new. It was proposed by Sweden. It is a small LEO-orbit satellite, with one year of observation, carrying a radiometer to complement to the [Eumetsat] Metop SG radiometer. This would be the first prototype of a future constellation of small satellites. There are different numbers — 12, 16, 20 satellites — that have been proposed.
Eumetsat will look at the data from the first and decide if they find it interesting. Then, in a few years, they might agree to a joint program with a constellation.
With one satellite you demonstrate the added value. Then you need the temporal coverage. Sweden proposed it, but it is an ESA mission and we have had a huge interest from other countries, not only Arctic countries. I am pretty confident that this will be well-subscribed.
After Copernicus, your Future EO program is the biggest funding slice, at 650 million euros.
Future EO is a domain where I am most concerned about getting a good subscription. It’s the most important program, the backbone. There are small Scout mission proposals, and HAPS [high-altitude observation platforms]. We are pushing the technology, as we do with any program.
How to you look at higher-resolution Sentinel satellites with respect to what’s going on at the national or private-sector level?
It would not be a problem to develop 50-cm satellite for ESA. But it’s a programmatic issue. ESA will not compete with its own commercial companies in its own member states. So it is unlikely we would enter this domain because it remains a commercial domain.
You refer to Future EO as over nine years, three segments of three years each.
Yes, we used to have an envelope program that spanned five years. Now we have three years and the 650 million is for that.
Were you surprised that the French space agency, CNES, and Airbus agreed on the jointly funded CO3D 50-cm constellation?
They are convinced that there is a very good market, a good business case and I appreciated the fact that they did this. I think they did the right thing.
Look at Pleiades Neo [Airbus’s future 30-cm optical satellites], where they have invested they own money. it was courageous of them to do that. They had to work very hard to get it approved. I applaud them for doing it.
Airbus said it has advance orders of several hundred million euros for Pleiades Neo, two years before the launch of the four satellites.
Isn’t that great? It shows that Earth observation is becoming a very dynamic domain, growing very fast, and with a much higher commercial commercial element than it used to have.
So you’re optimistic about prospects fo the businesses of the New Space startups? There are a lot of them in the Earth observation sector.
I am very positive. What they have managed — Planet and Spire and others — is to create an awareness of the use of Earth observation for many aspects of society, which of course we also do with our public missions. But they are funded in a very different way. They have given it such a momentum and positive energy. It’s good for everyone. I really hope they succeed and make big money.
What effects does this have on your program?
It makes us, on the public side, think about how to realign our concepts for the long term. It’s clear that in the medium to long term, our future will look quite different in terms of the kind of satellites we produce and how we produce them and how we get data.
It’s a way for us to critically assess our program in relation to those companies, and to find synergies to use their data along with the more classical, traditional companies.
It’s clear that the resolution scale is moving downward, but it’s also clear that we, as ESA, have to move out of segments that are becoming commercial.
That’s the whole idea of a government R&D agency.
It is the whole idea. But sometimes people are reluctant to do what they are supposed to do. It’s not as easy as you might think. We’re not unique at ESA in this reflection. We are taking it very seriously and we need to see how it affects our architectural setup. We will continue to provide some segments of this Earth observation part, but others, meaning commercial, will be integrated into our system.
Airbus Defence and Space is financing, without government anchor-customer guarantee, four Pleiades Neo 30-cm-GSD satellites to match competitor Maxar at the very-high-resolution end of the market. Credit: Airbus
Do you see any particular threat to the package you are putting before ministers at the end of the month?
I think Copernicus will do very well, assuming that the UK comes as strongly as I hope. We may even get more than the requested 1.4 billion euros.
As for an Aeolus [atmospheric dynamics satellite] follow-on, I’ll make a proposal in 2022 after we learn lessons from the current design. We’re looking at this with Eumetsat.
Has there been a definitive resolution to the laser issue?
Yes. It was running on the A-laser for about a year but that laser was degrading continuously. We have switched to the identical B laser and it has degraded slightly but this is what yo expect. They do degrade over time. But it is degrading much less. We switched from A to B in July. Since early September we have regular measurements and they are very good.
One lesson I have learned is that despite a reduced signal, the wind information is just as good. So maybe we don’t need to aim for such a high power going forward.
There’s a lot going on in orbit and in data analytics, but ground storage and data dissemination has not taken off as much in the private sector. Does this need an extra push?
Of course. In space we have reached a good infrastructure in Europe with the Sentinels and Earth Explorers and the national missions. We have a good picture of where to go and what investments will come.
What I see missing is on the ground. We’re going to hit a bottleneck pretty soon.
150 Tb per day from Copernicus a year ago, 250 Tb today; possible collaboration with DG-Connect
Today we are disseminating, with Copernicus, 250 terabytes per day from the central hub in Esrin [Italy]. It was 150 We manage well. The data uptake is good, the data flow is good and users are happy. We have a 98.5% or 99% reliability so it’s really working well.
But we’re going to reach our limit on IT capabilities sooner or later. The trend is to go to cloud-based processing. The other part we’re pushing is AI for data management.
I’ve met with DG-Connect’s head — Roberto Viola — twice now. He has written to request that we make a concrete proposal for how Earth observation could be used as a case for investment under the framework of Digital Europe. That’s in the seven-year budget as well, but on the DG Connect side. I am now doing this assessment and we need to see what this means.
But certainly I would need to reinforce access to high-performance computing, most likely with a networked approach. But this needs to be verified. And we need to se what is needed on our side to increase our computing capability.
Does DG Connect have in its seven-year budget room to do something with you?
Yes, they do.