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Europe's new weather satellites clear political snag

Posted: June 23, 2010

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Europe's meteorological satellite agency finally resolved a lengthy dispute Monday between France and Germany over their roles in the next-generation weather satellites to cover the continent.

Artist's concept of the Meteosat Third Generation satellite constellation. Credit: ESA/P. Carril
During a meeting in Rome on Monday and Tuesday, the governing council of the Eumetsat weather agency approved the program resolution and program proposal for the Meteosat Third Generation satellites, which are scheduled to begin launching in 2016.

The decision defines the scope and cost of the MTG constellation.

"MTG is now on track, securing the future of Eumetsat's geostationary meteorological observations and services until at least 2038," said Lars Prahm, Eumetsat's director-general.

The agreement keeps the troubled program on schedule to replace Europe's current weather satellites when the first pair of MTG imaging and sounding satellite are operational in 2018, according to Eumetsat.

The six-satellite MTG system will launch at set intervals of every few years to keep track of weather over Europe and Africa for at least two decades. Meteosat satellites operate in geostationary orbit more than 22,000 miles above Earth.

The program's controversy centers on the European Space Agency's selection of Thales Alenia Space of France as the satellites' prime contractor. OHB Technology, based in Bremen, Germany, is Thales' partner in the winning industrial consortium.

Thales and OHB bested an industrial team led by Astrium facilities in Germany, which included contributions from Astrium's satellite plant in Toulouse, France.

ESA officials said both proposals fell below the MTG program's budget cap, but the Thales-led bid carried a much lower cost.

Germany immediately protested the March contract announcement, saying it should receive a larger share of the MTG industrial work than the 50-50 split between France and Germany outlined in the contract with Thales and OHB. Germany is providing the most funding for the MTG program out of Eumetsat's 26 member states.

Eumetsat funds about 75 percent of the MTG program, with ESA picking up the remaining 25 percent of the system's cost and overseeing the program's contracts.

Germany did not vote for the MTG resolution and program proposal during a Eumetsat special council meeting in March because of the contract dispute. Portugal also declined to approve the program for economic reasons.

Both countries voted for the MTG program documents this week after Germany was promised a larger role in the satellites' atmospheric sounder instruments, an ESA official said in an e-mail.

ESA is expected to approve the contract with Thales before the end of June, clearing the way for a formal contract signature.