Researchers reliant on Earth-observation satellites for vital data were given reason to smile this week, as the European Space Agency (ESA) took a step towards launching its next generation of monitoring technology.
The Sentinel 1A environmental satellite now has a launch window in the final three months of next year, despite the fact that long-term operational funding has not been settled for the multiple planned Sentinels and the €5.8-billion (US$7.3-billion) Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) programme of which they are a part.
Since the loss of Europe’s Envisat was confirmed on 9 May, researchers have been increasingly afraid of ‘going blind’ and missing crucial data (see Europe loses sight of Earth). Confirmation that the future of the GMES and the Sentinels is secure would go a long way to assuaging these fears.
However the launches had been in doubt as European politicians wrangled over how to pay for them. At one point it looked like funding would be taken away from the European Union’s budget and run through an intergovernmental agency. This, feared ESA and scientists, could delay funding for years until all 27 member-state governments agreed to pay.
Last week the Danish EU Presidency set out a proposal to fund the GMES within the EU’s 2014–20 budget. Although this is by no means guaranteed to happen, the proposal is described by ESA as “an important step forward”.
Now ESA has confirmed that it has agreed a three month launch window for Sentinel 1A — from 1 October to 31 December, 2013. To some extent the space-agency’s hand was forced, as this narrowing down of the window from a year to three months had to be done now under the contract previously agreed with Arianespace, the French launch company based in Evry-Courcouronnes.
“What we should read into it is that despite some uncertainty the member states and the European commission are very keen on moving ahead with launching Sentinel 1A because they do not want to risk an interruption of data services especially after the loss of Envisat,” says Josef Aschbacher, head of the ESA GMES space office.
ESA also signed a contract with Eurockot in February to launch Sentinel 2A and Sentinel 3A at some point in early 2014.