The Sentinel-3 mission is scheduled for launch in 2012. Credit: ESA

An ambitious European proposal to launch an orbiting Earth-monitoring system called Kopernikus is facing possible delays to the launches of its component satellites after Italy and France demanded that costs be cut. A flurry of negotiations is under way to try to hammer out a compromise before a crucial meeting of the European Space Agency (ESA) from 25 to 26 November, at which the future of the project will be decided.

Kopernikus, formerly called the Global Monitoring for the Environment and Security (GMES) programme, is a joint venture of ESA and the European Commission. So far, it has secured €1.97 billion (US$2.6 billion) in funding to carry it through to 2013 (see _Nature_ 450, 778–779; 2008), which should cover the launching of the first members of the three Sentinel families of Kopernikus satellites (see 'Meet the sentinels').

Research satellites such as Envisat already provide data and images for Earth monitoring, but Kopernikus will operate its fleet of satellites over decades, and with regularly scheduled replacements. This means that it will generate continuous, cross-calibrated, long-term data sets on the state of the planet and its atmosphere. But the money for the operational system has yet to be approved, and the ESA ministerial meeting in November is crunch time.

Kopernikus enjoys strong political support. At a meeting in September, the European Space Council, a body made up of the ministers of the European Union's member states, rated it and the Galileo satellite navigation system as Europe's top immediate priorities in space.

Satellite shortfall

However, financial and political realities mean some member states are not showing the same support behind the scenes. Italy, for instance, is demanding that its initial contribution at least halve, which would cut more than €150 million from the budget. The shortfall is expected to be partly offset by the United Kingdom increasing its share from 1.5% to around 12% — a total contribution of about €120 million.

Italy and France also oppose ESA funding any satellites other than the first in each Sentinel family. They say that the costs of the subsequent satellites — the b-units essential to ensure long-term data continuity and adequate global coverage — should be borne by the European Union. Kopernikus's budget would therefore fall far short of what ESA needs to pursue its original proposal.

Germany, Spain and most of the smaller member states support funding the rapid deployment of the Sentinels, including the b-units. But decisions at ESA ministerial meetings must be unanimous. The goal now is to find a compromise that doesn't endanger Kopernikus's full operability.

The contours of that compromise were still shifting as Nature went to press, but officials involved in the negotiations say that the option of cancelling any satellites is now off the table. Instead, the agency will probably ask the council of ministers for €857 million instead of €1 billion as initially planned. ESA would then still pay for all the satellites themselves, but would ask the European Commission to fund the launch and in-orbit validation of the b-units, a move that would delay the launch of these satellites until at least 2014.

Impending deadlock?

As the commission has no clear legal remit to procure future launches, it is highly unlikely to be able to commit to this before the ministerial meeting. This would trigger a deadlock and a probable postponement of any decision on funding of the b-units until the next ESA ministerial meeting in 2011. Moreover, although delaying the launches may initially save some member states money, it could make the programme more expensive in the long term.

Josef Aschbacher, head of the ESA branch of Kopernikus, is confident that the funding difficulties will be overcome, and says they are "typical of any major European programme" because of the diverging interests of member states. "By 2015 Kopernikus will be offering an operational monitoring system for everyone, similar to the systems in place today for meteorology, but for everything from air-quality and water-pollution monitoring and alerts, to city planning and emergency operations."

Kopernikus isn't the only European space programme to face budget problems. ESA's ExoMars mission has been delayed until 2016, thanks to member states' reluctance to cover the higher costs of a proposed larger and more sophisticated rover (see _Nature_ 455, 840–841; 2008). The delay could push costs up even higher, as the scientific and engineering teams working on the lander must be kept in place. But it should buy time for ESA to seek the greater international participation that will probably be needed to keep the mission alive.

The cuts to Italy's ESA contributions, announced since businessman Enrico Saggese was appointed as head of the Italian Space Agency in August (see _Nature_ 454, 557; 2008), have affected both missions.