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View from Brussels: More eyes in the sky

Europe’s market-leading Earth-observation satellite programme will be bolstered further over the course of the next decade with new spacecraft. But despite universal praise for the Copernicus project, it could face funding cuts.

The satellite programme, named after Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, provides a whole range of services, from Earth visualisations and CO2 monitoring to logging wind speeds and tracking natural disasters like forest fires.

According to the European Space Agency’s ambitious programme for the next decade, which includes developing new spacecraft for Nasa missions and putting a European astronaut on the Moon for the first time, there will also be new satellites to monitor sea levels and the sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

Those lofty plans were given a real boost at the end of November when ESA member states decided to grant the agency an increased budget for the next five years. The agency’s director, Jan Wörner, said: “It’s a real surprise, it’s more than I proposed, I’m very happy.” 

ESA is not an EU agency or institution and it actually ranks non-EU countries among its members. The UK, which is due to leave the bloc at the end of January, will remain in ESA and actually decided to award its biggest ever contribution to Europe’s space efforts.

The agency does receive EU funding though and for a wide array of projects, including Copernicus and its global positioning cousin, Galileo, which is due to operate at full precision next year.

But ESA’s future finances from Brussels look less certain, as ongoing talks over the EU’s long-term budget for 2021-2027 could result in cuts to space policy. Negotiators are trying to plug the significant hole that will be left after Brexit, given that the UK is a net contributor to the piggy bank.

For its part, the European Commission proposed more money than is currently enjoyed and will even set up a dedicated department just to deal with defence and space matters. But it is national governments that are threatening to drain ESA’s booster tanks.

Under a revised budget offer tabled by the current presidency of the EU Council, held by Finland, space haemorrhages €1.7bn. We will have to wait until the second half of 2020 to see the final picture, as a deal is not expected until the very last minute.

ESA will plough on regardless and Copernicus might even start to benefit in a big way from other areas expected to be given beefed-up budgets, including climate policy and artificial intelligence development projects.

A planned satellite mission known as Sentinel-7 is due to launch in 2025. Its purpose will be to pinpoint sources of CO2 emissions and provide a detailed worldwide overview of how bad the problem really is.

There is a current programme that monitors CO2 concentration but that data has its limitations, as it is difficult to work out where the emissions have actually come from. The planned launch date will preempt a global stocktake of greenhouse gas output scheduled under the rules of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The satellite system is likely to be used in conjunction with Chinese, Japanese and US equivalents to check that countries are doing their fair bit to decarbonisation.

More eyes in the sky means much more data though. Space experts are already planning to introduce AI into the mix to do more with the information Copernicus and Galileo provide. Acting quicker with the data is also part of the plan.

To see how Copernicus in particular is used in practice, E&T went to Finland and met up with the Nordic nation’s coastguard, which uses space data in some obvious and unusual ways.

The most unexpected application is tracking and cleaning up oil spills in the Gulf of Finland, which is a busy route for oil transport. New rules set by the government are also cracking down on shippers that pollute the sea, so the coastguard has to enforce them.

According to the ship’s crew, satellite images are now detailed enough to identify a potential spill and also track where it is going and where it has come from, which is invaluable in planning the cleanup op and figuring out which ship was the culprit.

When used in conjunction with aerial flybys, the coastguard says that an oil spill can be cleaned up in a relatively short period of time, which is crucial to preventing damage to marine life.

Satellites are one of the few areas then where Europe can compete and even dominate in the global space race but its ability to maintain that winning streak will hinge on how many resources are put at the sector’s disposal.

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