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Focus on Earth

Europe is rightly pioneering the systematic appliance of science in space to societal needs.

To achieve unanimity among European countries is no mean feat, particularly when it involves spending billions. So congratulations are due to the ministers of the 18 member states of the European Space Agency (ESA) who meet every three years to agree on funds, and who briskly struck a deal at their summit in the Netherlands last week giving the agency its requested €10 billion (US$12.8 billion), which includes €2.34 billion in new commitments (see page 552).

The ministers also delivered a well-merited vote of confidence in ESA's science programme, which has long punched well above its financial weight, and has enjoyed a string of prominent successes. It got every euro it asked for — which was hardly a given considering the present economic backdrop.

That happy outcome fits within a broader shift in which the European Union (EU) seems gradually to be adopting a coherent twenty-first-century space policy. Indeed, it is getting its act together in a far more focused and visionary fashion than the United States, which nonetheless boasts much larger space budgets. The EU's major new focus is to deliver tangible benefits of space activity to citizens and society, and to address key challenges such as climate change and natural disasters, with Earth monitoring as its flagship. Importantly, fundamental research has not been sacrificed, and is set to thrive.

The planned joint EU–ESA Kopernikus constellation of Earth observation satellites, scheduled for launch over the next decade, will deliver a wealth of real-time data and maps of planet Earth at our keyboard fingertips. This represents a far-sighted vision for the use of space science to meet societal needs. And, whereas in the past research satellites were often one-offs, Kopernikus will translate the expertise and technologies acquired from generations of research satellites into fleets of operational satellites delivering data 24/7, year-in, year-out.

The focus of Kopernikus on generating long-term continuous data sets, and exploiting these data as user-friendly services is one that European space science could benefit and learn from. One of ESA's weaknesses, as highlighted recently by the European Science Foundation is that, unlike NASA, it has no clear remit to fund archiving and support for scientific analyses of all the space data it collects. So this falls largely to national agencies, whose role here the foundation describes as “inadequate in volume, fragmented, and dictated by national concerns”.

ESA ministers took steps to remedy this last week by approving a €72.3-million initiative to mine past and future data for essential climate variables defined by scientists. But much greater progress could be made, and Europe needs to pay more attention to making better use of the flood of data streaming in from above.

Making data more widely available and accessible, in particular to support policy, is a cornerstone for the EU, which over the past decade has assumed political leadership of space policy in Europe. This shift in power, away from ESA and national governments, was confirmed in September in a resolution that gave the EU the lead role in coordinating investment and operation of Europe's space activities.

The respective roles of the EU and ESA in both Kopernikus and the global navigation system Galileo point to an evolution in which ESA will become the autonomous science and technology development arm of the EU, and the EU will take responsibility for the heavy-lifting of costly operational application and infrastructure. Such change is desirable, with ESA being the place where innovative technologies are developed and where inspiring science is done — in turn, driving the applications of tomorrow.

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Focus on Earth. Nature 456, 546 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/456546a

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