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ESA raises bar on future space projects

The European Space Agency garnered pledges from 22 member nations to support more ambitious space exploration and research, including on climate.

The European Space Agency wrapped up two days of high level meetings on Thursday with pledges from 22 member nations to support more ambitious space exploration and research projects, including monitoring of climate change.

Officials called it "the most ambitious plan to date for the future of ESA and the whole European space sector" after the agency's meeting in Seville, Spain, where Canada and other European Union observers also took part in talks to secure European access to and use of space, according to an agency statement.

The approved budget of 12.5 billion euros for the next three years, plus another 1.9 billion euros for two more years of operating costs and research, amount to what officials call the first significant boost in ESA funding in a quarter-century.

The largest financial supporter, Germany, will pay almost 23% of the overall budget of 14.4 billion euros, which includes enough to pay for some major projects. "This is really a huge amount,” the agency's director-general, Jan Wörner, told ESA Web TV. "If you count it money-wise per year, that means 4.2 billion euros per year."

One of the projects is the first dedicated space-based antenna, known as LISA, which will be used to detect and accurately measure gravitational waves that are tiny ripples in the fabric of space-time. Another involves an advanced telescope for high-energy astrophysics, known as Athena, that will survey supermassive black holes and explore supernova explosions and energetic stellar flares.

Among the biggest reasons for increasing ESA's budget was enthusiasm for Europe’s Copernicus Earth-observation satellites, which monitor climate change. But ESA also will seek ways of reducing costs through "more efficiency, agility, innovation, artificial intelligence and also commercialization," said Wörner, a German civil engineer and university professor.

Competition and cooperation

Portugal's science minister, Manuel Heitor, who co-chaired the ministerial-level meeting, said the budget will help make Europe more competitive in space through "an ambitious portfolio" of programs. Ministers said it was important for Europe to compete with the United States, Russia and China.

In the 20th century, the world became so worried that Cold War tensions might erupt into a real-life star wars that the United Nations General Assembly set up the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, or COPUOS, to keep the peace under a December 1959 resolution.

The Vienna-based COPUOS gained responsibility for international exploration and the use of space for collective peace, security and development. The committee’s 24 charter members, including Iran, the Soviet Union and United States, grew to comprise 84 of the U.N.'s 193 member nations, reflecting the interest of nations such as Britain, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Japan and Luxembourg.

France's higher education minister, Frédérique Vidal, another co-chair of the meeting, said the growing interest in space reflects how its technology is a part of the critical infrastructure of people's daily lives.

"Thanks to the European excellence in space," he said, "we are able to mutually tackle human and global challenges such as climate change, space safety and security."