European Meeting to Decide the Future of Earth Monitoring
Thursday, July 5th, 2012
By AJ Plunkett
The world’s Earth observation operations are facing tough times. Earlier this year, a group of U.S. scientists warned that many of the nation’s Earth-observing satellites were growing so old that, unless budget plans are stepped up to replace them, there might be only a quarter of them left by the end of this decade.
Last month, the European Space Agency (ESA) declared that the Envisat spacecraft was dead after two months of trying to regain contact with the satellite that had been collecting data on the Earth’s land, atmosphere, oceans, and ice caps — including the Northwest Passage — for 10 years.
Meanwhile, the program overseeing the launch of a satellite to take over Envisat’s work is facing major threats to its funding by the European Commission. That, in turn, is threatening a global effort to link all of the Earth’s observing systems to provide information in a coordinated database.
That brings us to GMES. The Global Monitoring for Environment and Security program (GMES) is led and funded by the European Union (EU), and the ESA develops its satellite systems. Founded in 1998, GMES plans to take a global lead in environmental monitoring, using both ground and satellite observation — some new and some pre-existing. The goal is to provide a wide range of data to public users, for better management of environmental resources, as well as civil security.
GMES is planning to launch a new satellite system, developed by ESA, called Sentinel, the first component of which is set to launch in 2013. With that and pre-existing capabilities, GMES hoped to begin operations in 2014.
In addition, GMES is a major contributor to the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), a project of the Group on Earth Observations (GEO), a voluntary partnership of governments and international organizations. Among the group’s 88 members are the European Commission, the United States, Canada, and Russia, as well as other major spacefaring countries.
The GEOSS project seeks to link the thousands of scientific instruments around the world that provide data on the Earth, many of them in isolation. By linking and coordinating that data, the project aims to “revolutionize our ability to understand and manage the planet.”
Facing a continuing budget crisis and calls to hold the line on spending, the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, said late last year that it wanted to remove all direct funding for GMES from the EU’s upcoming seven-year budget plan, scheduled to begin in 2014.
Instead, the commission proposed that each member country provide the needed funding for GMES outside the budget plan, based on a sliding scale. The EU has already invested €3 billion ($3.87 billion Canadian) in GMES.
The announcement drew immediate protests from major EU ministers. Concern has been over the possibility of setbacks for Europe’s growing place in the global navigation and Earth observation satellite industry, which European Commission leaders acknowledge could generate billions of euros in the next 20 years.
While the EU deferred making a decision on the future of GMES funding at the end of May, the ESA announced in the first half of June that it was reserving the Arianespace launch anyway.
Representatives and key decision makers from across the EU met the first week of June in Copenhagen, Denmark, to discuss the future of GMES and issued a resolution to show support for the program, citing, in part, GMES’s contributions to the global GEOSS project.
During the conference, an EC deputy director general noted that GMES offered a 1-for-4 euro investment in the EU economy. “GMES must continue,” Paul Weissenberg said.
AJ Plunkett is a freelance writer in Virginia with experience in covering defense and aerospace industries as well as the military. AJ blogs via Contently.com.