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Europe's fleet of Earth-observing Sentinel satellites could grow with a big budget boost.

ESA/ATG medialab

Europe gives space programs a big boost

European nations have given a green light, and a significant funding boost, to almost all of the proposals laid out by the European Space Agency (ESA) for its future program, officials said today at the end of a 2-day budget meeting in Seville, Spain. The more than 20% rise in the ESA’s 3-year budget is the largest boost the agency has seen in 25 years, one that will allow it to: concurrently run two major orbiting observatories to look at x-rays and gravitational waves; join NASA in returning samples from Mars; expand its monitoring of Earth’s environment to help tackle the climate crisis; and develop a reusable vehicle to take cargo to and from space. 

“This reaffirms our common ambition for Europe,” France’s research minister Frédérique Vidal told a press conference after the meeting of ministers from all 22 ESA member states. “You see a happy director general in front of you,” commented ESA chief Jan Wörner. 

ESA managers have often come away disappointed after previous ministerial meetings, which take place roughly every 3 years, and must cancel or slow down programs that don’t win enough support. Wörner says the agency spent 2 years developing the current proposal and lobbying members for support. “NASA has one government, we have 22,” he joked. But as the ministers went through the 47-page list of programs it became clear that “not a single program had to stop,” he said. 

In all, the ministers approved a budget of €12.5 billion for the next 3 years, a rise of more than 20% over a €10.3 billion budget set in 2016. “It was a surprise, more than I proposed, which is a very good message,” Wörner said. Ministers also agreed to an additional €1.9 billion to allow ESA’s mandatory programs—which all members must contribute to in line with their gross domestic product—to continue for another 2 years if for some reason the next ministerial is delayed.

One of those mandatory programs is science. “Science is the backbone of what we do at ESA,” Wörner said. With a stagnant budget over the past couple of decades, the rate of mission launches had slowed and European space scientists were anxious for more. One goal was to bring forward the 2034 launch date of the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), a gravitational wave detector, to run at the same time as the Athena x-ray observatory because they share some targets, such as black holes. The science budget will now ramp up to €576 million per year by 2022.

ESA’s Earth observation program was another big winner, receiving €2.6 billion over the next 3 years, 29% more than was requested. The program develops its own scientific satellites, called Earth Explorers, and also builds operational monitoring satellites called Sentinels for the European Union under the Copernicus program. ESA’s Earth observation director Josef Aschbacher told the press conference that he had “a very concrete list of how that money will be used.” Top of the list is building more powerful satellites to measure atmospheric carbon dioxide. Only a few satellites, such as NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, are operational, and scientists want to monitor the gas with finer resolution and distinguish between human-generated and natural carbon emissions. 

In space exploration, which covers the International Space Station (ISS), the Moon, and Mars, ESA has committed to keep supporting ISS until 2030, to contribute components to the NASA-led Lunar Gateway space station, and to start building parts of the NASA-ESA Mars sample return mission. It has also adopted a French-German proposal for a lunar lander and rover. Wörner says this is a good example of ESA’s “moon village” concept, a lunar outpost that various space agencies and commercial enterprises can contribute to. “The idea is now 5 years old and finally we’re coming to concrete actions,” he said.

In transportation, ESA will move ahead with upgraded versions of its larger Ariane and medium Vega launchers. And the agency will begin to develop its own capsule for transporting cargo, even though 80% of the support for the so-called Space Rider, a reusable system, comes from one member state, Italy. “Most importantly, Space Rider will fly, and land,” Wörner said.

One area that did not fare so well is a new theme, or “pillar,” on space security and safety, focusing on space weather and threats from near-Earth objects. Hera, an asteroid deflection mission, won full funding, but the proposed Lagrange mission, which would station satellites between the Sun and Earth, as well as on a trailing Earth orbit, to watch for dangerous solar blasts, did not win full support. ESA will continue developing its instruments, Wörner says. “It’s not a disaster,” he said. The important thing, he added, is “we have a safety and security pillar now.” 

*Correction, December 4, 10:15 a.m.: An earlier version of this story misstated the boost to ESA’s Earth observation program and incorrectly described a reusable cargo capsule as being capable of transporting astronauts.