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Europe unites over space budget

December 7, 2005 By Jenny Hogan This article courtesy of Nature News.

Countries commit cash to martian rover and satellites.

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Two days of tense negotiations over Europe's spending on space have ended happily for the European Space Agency (ESA).

After meeting in Berlin on 5 and 6 December, ministers from ESA's 17 member states agreed to provide 95% of the funding requested by the space agency. The agency's director-general, Jean-Jacques Dordain, describes the result as "fantastic".

ESA had asked for a total of €8.8 billion (US$10.3 billion) to cover its running costs until the end of 2010 and to begin new programmes, including sending a rover to Mars and launching Earth-observation satellites.

It got almost everything it wanted, with some programmes receiving more money than requested. The only disappointment, says Dordain, was that the meeting failed to decide whether ESA should embark on a project with Russia's space agency to build a reusable, six-man space plane.

ESA wanted about €50 million to carry out a preliminary, two-year study of how ESA could be involved in building Clipper, the vehicle that Russia is proposing as a replacement for its Soyuz craft.

Even without that money, Dordain says the matter will continue to be discussed. "We need two transportation systems in the world," he says. NASA has not invited ESA to collaborate on the Crew Exploration Vehicle, the successor to its space shuttle, and "this is the reason why we were proposing to be a partner on the Clipper project", explains Dordain.

Action station

Contributions to running the International Space Station and its science projects have fallen slightly short of the requested €0.8 billion. However, the amount pledged shows that Europeans are still committed to the project, says Dordain.

"I shall be able to send a very important signal to the international partners and in particular to the United States," he says.

ESA will now push for its Columbus science module, ready and waiting in Germany, to be launched on the earliest possible shuttle and connected to the space station.

Science projects

The budget decisions boost ESA's science programme, which will get the full €2.1 billion it requested. This translates to a budget that will go up by 2.5% a year over the next five years. And it is enough to allay fears that flagship missions would be cancelled in the face of budget shortfalls (see ' Europe's cash crisis puts space plans under threat')

It will also lay the foundations of the 'Cosmic vision', a roadmap for future science missions stretching to 2025 that was presented to ministers at the meeting. "It gives the scientists in Europe a lot of opportunities," said Laurens-Jan Brinkhorst, Chairman of the ESA Ministerial Council and Dutch Minister of Economic Affairs.

The science funding comes as a relief to ESA officials. In the past, the scientific programme has suffered because all member states must contribute an amount determined by their national output, or GDP. Any budget increase requires a unanimous decision by the nations. "Even a week ago I did not believe Dordain could achieve an increase of 2.5%," says Brinkhorst.

Rovers return

Among the optional programmes, to which member states can choose not to contribute, there was strong support for plans to land a rover on Mars. Slated for launch in 2011, ExoMars secured more money than was asked for: the mission might now be enhanced by adding more instruments or a companion orbiter.

The Global Monitoring for Environment and Security programme, which aims to launch satellites and coordinate Earth observation across Europe, also received extra cash. This fuels hopes that CryoSat, the ice-watching satellite lost on launch in October, will be resurrected for a second attempt.

The two-day meeting actually wrapped up early, because the delegates reached agreement more quickly than expected. "At a time when a lot of people have doubts about Europe's capacity to act together, I think this was historic. We did act together and we have taken up new chances," says Brinkhorst.


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