Christmas comes early for European Space Agency

17:57 06 December 2005
Maggie McKee

The European Space Agency has received 97% of the funding it requested from its member states for the next five years, following a top-level meeting in Berlin, Germany. The only major programme to be cut from the budget was the development of a Russian space plane called the Kliper.

ESA had asked for €8.4 billion ($9.9 billion) from its 18 member nations, including Canada, from 2006 to 2010. On Tuesday, ministers from those nations decided to provide €8.1 billion ($9.5 billion) in funding, generally supporting the programmes at the levels ESA had requested – with one exception.

ESA had hoped to fund a two-year study costing about €50 million ($59 million) into preliminary designs for the Kliper, a space plane Russia is developing to replace its workhorse Soyuz spacecraft. The spacecraft, billed as providing Europe with independent access to space, had received positive signs of support leading up to the meeting.

But on Monday, some of the largest contributors to ESA – such as Germany, Italy and France – failed to support the programme, forcing it to be cut from the budget. “It is a pity,” says ESA spokesperson Franco Bonacina. “But in 2008 there is another ministerial meeting, so Kliper might pop up again.”

But Bonacina told New Scientist: “For the rest of the programmes, it looks very, very good.” The science budget was funded at the requested level of €2.1 billion ($2.5 billion). This suggests that some expensive spacecraft proposals – such as the BepiColombo mission to Mercury planned for launch in 2012 – will not be cut, as originally feared. “I think with the money we have, BepiColombo can make it,” says Bonacina.

Space station boost

Support for the International Space Station – including maintenance and science experiments – also seemed doubtful on Monday. But ministers voted to provide €700 million ($824 million) – just €100 million ($118 million) less than requested – for the station.

“It sends a strong signal towards our partners that we will continue with our engagements – we still believe in the ISS,” says Bonacina. “We hope their engagements are respected, as well.” ESA is now trying to move the launch of its Columbus science module forward from the eighth future US space shuttle flight to the sixth.

Other programmes received more funding than had been requested – including the ExoMars mission to send a rover to search for signs of life on the Red Planet in 2011. It will now receive a large portion of the €724 million ($853 million) in the space exploration budget.

In addition, a European Union-led initiative called the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) got €253 million ($298 million) – €53 million ($62 million) more than requested. GMES will provide a new system to combine data from Earth-observing missions, and launch a series of environmental-observation satellites that would be used to make decisions about policy and civil security.

Meeting participants also endorsed a resolution to use only European launchers for commercial and space missions rather than rockets from Russia or other countries, even though they might be cheaper. This means ESA will give priority to launchers such as the Ariane 5 and its smaller cousin Vega, which is expected to make its first flight at the end of 2007.

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