Europe ministers debate space future

Ministerial Council

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Esa holds a Ministerial Council every two or three years – to plan the agency’s direction for three to five years ahead

The International Space Station was a big sticking point in negotiations on day one of the European Space Agency’s Ministerial Council. A familiar story.

Research ministers gathered here in Lucerne, Switzerland, to agree an €11bn (£9.5bn; $12bn) investment programme in Esa, but their discussions got hung up on how much each member state should contribute to the ISS.

Until this is resolved, other funding issues will not fall fully into place.

All ministerials start this way.

Germany, as the biggest backer of the station, asks other countries to step up. These nations usually give a cool response at first, before then negotiating upwards as they try to secure backing for their own favoured projects.

By the end of the two-day meeting, the requested funds are normally there or thereabouts.

Esa spokesman Franco Bonacina gave little away at his end-of-day-one briefing to the media.

The meeting could be characterised as having “a positive spirit; good progress has been done”, he said. But then added that “some open questions remain. I don’t have a pope to announce. No white smoke.”

Information filtering out informally from Thursday’s closed sessions suggested the billion or so needed to support the next phase of ISS exploitation was just over €100m short. But it was clear also that some countries still had more to put on the table.

Esa officials want to go away from Lucerne with a commitment from its member states to participate in the ISS up until at least 2024.

Making this statement – with money to support it – would open new opportunities for European astronauts to fly to the station. It would also clear the way for European industry to start building a second “service module” for America’s forthcoming crewship known as Orion.

This capsule has been commissioned by the US space agency to take people beyond the station, out into the Solar System to destinations such as Mars.

By constructing Orion’s propulsive back end and gifting it to the Americans, Europe would not only cover some of its common operating costs at the ISS but also, hopefully, secure some seats on a deep-space mission.

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The billion or so needed to support the next phase of ISS exploitation is said to be over €100m short

The 11bn-euro request Esa officials have made to member states would fund a diverse range of programmes – from rockets and space telescopes to Earth observation and satellite navigation.

Included in the long list of options are myriad RD projects that could one day lead, for example, to the construction of a mini robotic space shuttle, called Space Rider; and to a mission referred to as AIM that would attempt to deflect an asteroid off its path – one possible approach to protecting Earth from calamitous impacts.

But the big concern coming into the meeting was whether ministers would want to press ahead with the prestige plan to land a robot rover on Mars in 2021.

This project is part of a joint venture with the Russians called ExoMars, which would seek to find signs of life on the Red Planet by getting the rover to drill beneath its dusty surface.

It is, however, hugely delayed and needs more than €400m from this meeting to carry it to completion.

Both Italy and Britain – the lead nations on the venture – promised at the start of the negotiations to write big cheques, and made good by committing two-thirds of the sum (€340m) needed to pay industry for its part in the rover endeavour.

Esa officials still need more support before the end of the meeting on Friday, but the mood music is good.

For the UK, where the rover would be assembled, ExoMars is a priority. Science minister Jo Johnson has made that abundantly clear here.

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Artist’s impression: The robot rover will aim to drill below Mars’ surface

And he was bullish about the project’s current status following all its organisational woes – “We now have the right management to get this done,” he told BBC News.

However, he knows that for ExoMars’ position to be settled here in Lucerne, those other high-profile programmes, such as the space station, have to be sorted out in parallel.

The UK delegation arrived in Lucerne determined to make a strong contribution across all of Britain’s key programmes of interest – in telecoms satellites, in commercial services that involve space data and applications, in Earth observation satellites, and in navigation.

These are activities that play especially well to home industry specialisms.

Again, early indications are that when all the monies are counted on Friday, Britain will be leading Europe in some of these areas.

In his opening address to the Ministerial Council, Mr Johnson said: “The UK remains committed to collaboration with our European partners on space.

“We continue to recognise the value of European cooperation on fundamental science, innovative technology, and daring space exploration through the European Space Agency.”