Spring  >>  2004

Smallsat Remote

A New Driver in Space Development

Over the past three decades, Europe has developed a series of Earth observations satellites. Most of them have been developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) in close cooperation with the space programs of member countries. Europe now has a substantial Earth observations infrastructure, which it has used to support a variety of European public good applications, such as agricultural policy, environmental policy, and resource management. Major elements include ESA’s Envisat, and ERS 1 & 2, France’s SPOT, and Eumetsat’s Meteosat satellite systems. Several new systems are in the planning stages. However, this impressive array of satellite systems, which deliver high quality data, has lacked a robust data and information infrastructure to support it, one capable of delivering useful information products routinely and reliably to customers.

In an effort to bring greater coherence to Europe’s use of its satellite Earth observation systems and its in situ systems (air, land, and sea) and to provide the basis for future system planning, ESA and the European Union (EU), with the European Commission (EC) as the EU’s executive agent, have teamed in a program entitled Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES). It is an ambitious program focused primarily on the pursuit of sustainable development and protection of the environment, and increasingly on security, broadly defined. When fully operational, it will serve as the cornerstone of Europe’s responses to global as well as regional environmental and security concerns. GMES is the next major Europe-wide space project after Galileo. Like Galileo, it is jointly managed by both the EU and ESA with participation from Eumetsat, governmental agencies, non-governmental organizations, and private firms.

The early stages of GMES are now underway. The EU and ESA together have allocated nearly €200 million over four years to develop a series of useful applications and the data and information systems to support them. Individual states and the private sector are devoting approximately another €100 million to the EU effort. The EU is providing research funding for developing applications in environmental monitoring and management, regional development, environmental risk reduction, crisis management, and humanitarian aid. ESA is funding the development of the information systems to deliver the information to end users. With other funding, ESA is also developing new Earth observation satellite systems. Officials expect the entire system to be fully functional by 2008.

GMES constitutes a central element in Europe’s strategy to use space technology to foster European innovation and to give Europe a greater global role in the environmental debate over global warming, pollution, and other global issues. It will also support Europe’s growing interest in using space systems to support European security, the precise meaning of which is under development. It is the second space-related “flagship” program after Europe’s Galileo position, navigation, and timing system.

GMES is part of a rapidly changing political environment for space activities in Europe, one that includes a new space policy thrust led by the European Union. The new policy was detailed in a November 2003 European Commission White Paper, “Space: A New European Frontier for an Expanding Union: An Action Plan for Implementing the European Space policy.” This white paper has received the endorsement of both ESA and the EU Parliament.

The policy urges a sustained, long-term effort to develop scientific knowledge and applications through space technologies, and to maintain independent access to space. It will be supported by an industrial policy aimed at “developing a competitive and innovative industrial base and a geographic spread of activities,” for example to the 10 Eastern European countries that are entering the EU this spring. It gives priority to the development of civil and commercial space technologies, particularly in launch services and satellite capabilities. This changing political environment also includes a drive to broaden the scope of ESA’s portfolio of technology development to include technologies with explicitly dual-use characteristics, such as advanced satellite communications, high resolution remote sensing, inter-satellite laser communication, and electronic surveillance.

GMES offers both a challenge and an opportunity to the United States.
The challenge: The early phases of GMES are centered on rationalizing the many different environmental data sources within Europe and giving them coherence. This early effort will help to define needed new capabilities in both space and in situ systems. Thus, if implemented successfully, GMES will lead to the development of autonomous European capabilities to monitor the global environment, and of a vastly strengthened and highly competitive European geospatial private sector. It will also serve as an effective scientific counterbalance to U.S. positions in the international governance of the global environment in the decades ahead.

The opportunity: Europe’s long term goal for GMES is to improve citizens’ quality of life and security by supporting environmental risk management and sustainable development. Hence, these capabilities will enable Europe to be a substantial partner with the United States and many other countries in establishing a truly global Earth observation program as called for at the Earth Observation Summit hosted by the White House in July 2003. The experience with GMES will provide useful organizational “lessons learned” for that major effort.

Despite the optimistic picture that EU and ESA documents on GMES present, Europe faces many hurdles in bringing this ambitious program to fruition. The size and scope of GMES and the complex structure of space activities within Europe suggests that bringing long-term coherence to GMES will require continual vigilance and attention to detail in the program. Europe must rationalize several different data access, pricing, and distribution policies, not only within Europe, but also with potential partners beyond Europe. Further, the EU and ESA must find effective ways to bring the 10 new members joining the EU this spring into the program. Some countries, such as Poland and Hungary, may also wish to join ESA, which would assist the effort of merging the interests of the expanded EU and ESA. Finally, over the long term, Europe will have to find effective ways to maintain focus, momentum, and coordination as new scientific findings suggest new directions for applications. Nevertheless, GMES is an exciting development for the geospatial community. Not only Europe but also other countries will benefit from a successful GMES program.


Ray A. Williamson is Research Professor of Space Policy and International Affairs in the Space Policy Institute of The George Washington University.

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