A hole in the Copernicus budget “unresolved”, according to the head of the Esa

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Stopgap measures expected as EU-UK row leaves Earth observation program €750m short

The head of the European Space Agency has said a €750 million hole in the finances of Copernicus – the EU’s Earth observation satellite program – remains “unresolved”, but that he hopes that an agreement will be reached with the European Commission within a few weeks.

The funding shortfall is the result of delays in the UK joining EU research programmes, ESA chief executive Josef Aschbacher (pictured) said on January 18.

The UK’s association with EU programs including Copernicus was agreed in December 2020 but has still not been finalized due to political disputes between the parties over the terms of trade involving the ‘North Ireland. This left the UK’s contribution to the Copernicus budget up in the air.

The program is expected to receive €5.4 billion from the EU for 2021-2027, but Aschbacher said in January 2021 that left a €2.3 billion hole to fill.

ESA, which counts the UK among its 22 member states, is independent of the EU but coordinates the delivery of the bloc’s Copernicus satellites as part of the EU’s space programme.

At his traditional press conference in January this year, Aschbacher said that although the missing funds were “still an unresolved issue”, he hoped a solution would be found “within the next two weeks”.

Copernicus is set to expand with six more missions, and Aschbacher said the Commission and ESA member states were unwilling to roll back the plans. Instead, he said there are “several options that allow us to buy a bit more time” which involve pushing decisions into the future, although the €750m will ultimately still have to be found.

Expansion plans

In total, the Esa budget should increase by 10% in 2022 compared to 2021, to reach 7.2 billion euros.

In November 2021, the agency announced its intention to expand European ambitions in space, with three “accelerator” programs focusing on sustainability, natural disasters and space security, and two “inspiring” programs focusing on hunting for extraterrestrial life and human space exploration.

But Aschbacher lamented that European investment in human space exploration is tiny compared to that of the United States. In 2021, Esa invested only 735 million euros, or only 7% of the 12.2 billion dollars (10.7 billion euros) invested by NASA.

Nevertheless, ESA has collaborated with Nasa on key projects such as the recently deployed James Webb Space Telescope, which Aschbacher said was a “very big success for Europe”, as well as on plans for the next mission. lunar from the US agency.

“What is not agreed yet and is being negotiated is a European astronaut touching the surface of the moon,” Aschbacher said.

Political will

Aschbacher said it was “pretty amazing” that unlike the United States and China, Europe does not have its own means to explore the “next economic zone” of the moon and beyond. “We don’t have enough money, [it’s] very simple,” he said, adding that it was ultimately a political issue.

On February 16, the European Space Summit will be held in Toulouse, coinciding with the French Presidency of the Council of the EU. Aschbacher said the summit would be a “very important milestone at the political level”, although decisions on budgets will not be made.

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