PARIS — As European ministers meet to allocate funds for European Space Agency programs for the next three years, the agency’s leadership is optimistic that it will win support for its priorities.
Ministers gathered here on November 22 for the start of a two-day meeting in which ESA’s 22 full member states and several associated states will formally commit to funding programs ranging from exploration to space transportation. ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher has proposed a package of programs with a total cost of 18.7 billion euros ($19.2 billion), an increase of around 25% on the previous ministerial in 2019.
In comments during the meeting’s open public session, Aschbacher made what was, in effect, a closing argument for this package, arguing that nations needed to invest more in space despite challenges such as the inflation, an energy crisis and the ongoing war in Ukraine.
“We have to make bold decisions today. As I have said before, we need to invest in the future because we are in crisis,” he said after outlining the components of the program he is asking members to fund.
In a briefing with reporters late November 21, Aschbacher and ESA Council Chair Anna Rathsman said they were heading to the ministerial meeting feeling confident and better prepared than previous meetings. , when deals were struck at the last minute.
“It looks good,” Rathsman said after a final meeting to finalize resolutions for the ministerial meeting. “There are a lot of different points of view among the 22 member states, of course, when you discuss things, but I think they are very constructive. There is a desire to really find a way forward.
“I myself have attended many ministerial conferences and I have never seen things go so quickly, so soon,” Aschabcher said.
Good planning, however, does not guarantee that funding will follow. The ministerial will involve, largely behind closed doors, debates and negotiations on the programs to which the countries will subscribe and with what amounts. Among the key issues is a request for €750 million as ESA’s contribution to the European Union’s secure connectivity constellation, recently named Infrastructure for Satellite Resilience, Interconnectivity and Security or IRIS² .
ESA also needs 700 million euros to restructure the ExoMars mission after ESA severed ties with Russia earlier this year, although the agency is only seeking half of that at this meeting. ministerial. This would allow ExoMars, which was scheduled to launch in September on a Russian rocket with a Russian landing pad, to launch in 2028 at the earliest with European replacements for those Russian elements.
Although ESA is seeking to significantly increase overall funding, this is not distributed equally across all programs. ESA’s science programs, for example, will only get a raise sufficient to cover inflation.
This fixed funding comes after a modest increase won by ESA for science at the previous ministerial meeting in 2019 in Seville, Spain. “We all fought very hard in Seville to get this modest increase, but inflation is winning,” ESA chief scientist Günther Hasinger said during the Nov. 21 briefing. “The borderline economic conditions are such that we cannot afford a big increase.”
He said the lack of increased funding will not affect missions already in development, although a large, X-ray telescope called Athena is being restructured and a likely delay due to development and rising costs. Hasinger said the ESA would instead delay subsequent missions.
One of the reasons for the disparity is that the science programs are “compulsory” programs, with all ESA members contributing according to their gross domestic product. Optional programmes, on the other hand, give Member States more flexibility as to which programs to support and to what extent.
“Everyone believes that the science program is extremely important. On the other hand, the number of elective programs that really have a good purpose keeps growing,” Rathsman said.
Nicolas Walter, Director General of the European Science Foundation, raised concerns about science funding in his remarks at the opening session of the Ministerial Council. “We are concerned that declining purchasing power will reduce the scope and scale of the program, including enabling technologies for future missions, and we therefore encourage increased investment as soon as possible,” he said. he declared, calling for this increase no later than the ministerial 2025.
In the opening remarks of the ministerial meeting, several Member States announced their intention to increase their contributions to ESA programmes, although generally with little detail on the amount of the increase or how how it would be distributed among these programs.
French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire, who hosted the ministerial council meeting, told reporters ahead of the opening session that he was confident ESA would get its full request. “I am confident because I think this space cooperation and this vision of space is absolutely essential for the independence of Europe,” he said. “I am therefore quite confident that financing space and European ambitions will be a priority for all Member States.”
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