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Here's What the European Space Agency Agreed to Pay for in the Next Three Years

ESA has many aims, but AIM is no longer one of them.

by Daniel Oberhaus
Dec 5 2016, 11:00am

ESA Ministerial Council meeting on December 1, 2016. Image: ESA

Every two to three years, the European Space Agency hosts a ministerial council which is essentially a glorified budget meeting. High ranking delegates from each of the agency's 22 member states come together for two days to determine the trajectory of the next three years at ESA based on how much each member state contributes to the budget. The most recent ministerial council meeting was held on December 1 and 2, and was expected to be particularly "challenging" due to political and economic troubles in many of its member states.

The theme of the 2016 ESA ministerial council was 'Space 4.0,' a catch-all term for the new space race defined by the burgeoning private space sector. A number of large program proposals were on the table, chief among them the Asteroid Impact Mission. AIM is the European half of a joint mission that will see NASA ramming a spacecraft into an asteroid in 2020 to study its composition and how to deflect killer asteroids bound for Earth.

Unfortunately, the ESA member states were unable to find the approximately €250 million in funding necessary to go forward with the AIM mission, so it looks as though NASA will be heading to the asteroid alone. Anticipating the hard feelings of all the planetary scientists who mounted a passionate defense in support of AIM, ESA Director General Jan Woerner characteristically couched the bad news in a joke during Friday's press meeting.

"We have a lot of aims, but AIM could not get the full subscription we needed to ensure this program will run smooth," said Woerner. "We won't go on with the original AIM program, but in case something is happening and Bruce Willis is not able to [defend our planet] a second time, the asteroid missions will continue. There was a clear demand from the member states and soon there will be another workshop for a definition on how we could continue [studying asteroids]."

What the AIM satellite would've looked like. RIP. Image: ESA

Although AIM is off the table, ESA was able to secure €10.3 billion out of the €11 billion requested by Woerner for missions that extend out to 2025. Here's a brief look at how that money will be used and what to watch for in the European space sector in the coming years:

HUMAN AND ROBOTIC EXPLORATION: €1.45 BILLION

There were a number of proposals on the table for ESA's Human and Robotic exploration programs, although the two major ones involved Europe's continuing role on the International Space Station and the continuation of the ExoMars mission. Woerner confirmed that ESA committed to helping fund the ISS through 2024, at which point NASA, ESA, and Roscosmos are considering decommissioning the station.

Woerner also confirmed that ExoMars would continue and that the budget would allow for the development of ExoMars 2020. This mission will follow on the heels of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, which has been studying the Martian atmosphere from orbit since 2016, and its ill-fated Schiaparelli lander. ExoMars 2020 will involve placing a rover on the Martian surface that will carry out sub-surface investigations into the possibility of life on the Red Planet.

Artist's conception of the ExoMars 2020 rover. Image: ESA

EARTH OBSERVATION: €1.37 BILLION

A major focus of ESA has been using space to understand climate change, a topic Woerner never hesitates to bring up when he speaks to the press. Integral to space-based climate efforts are ESA's Earth observation programs, particularly ALTIUS. This will be a "small mission" that will monitor ozone levels in the stratosphere from 2021-2024 in order to facilitate informed climate policy implementation in the wake of the COP 21 climate talks in Paris last year.

TELECOMMUNICATIONS PROGRAMS: €1.28 BILLION

This is a very business centric aspect of the ESA's roadmap, which is focusing on positioning Europe as a top-tier telecom provider by encouraging the deployment of satellite "mega-constellations" in Low Earth Orbit to create a SpaceDataHighway. This will occur under the banner of ARTES, and will include projects such as the ScyLight, which will work on developing quantum cryptography technology for space deployment.

SCIENCE, RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT: €3.83 BILLION

Elements of the BepiColombo spacecraft. Image: ESA

ESA's largest slice of the budget by far goes to scientific R&D, which was allocated at least twice as much money as any other single category. Some of the highlights of ESA's scientific research includes the launch of CHEOPS, an orbital telescope that will be dedicated to studying exoplanets. Then there's BepiColombo, Europe's first mission to Mercury in 2018 which will endure temperatures of nearly 700 F as it orbits one of least explored celestial bodies in the solar system. Then there's Euclid, which will launch on a Soyuz rocket to "map the geometry of the dark Universe" and investigate the evolution of galaxies and other cosmic structures.

To see the full breakdown of the ESA ministerial council's budget and learn more about the individual missions, visit the ESA's ministerial council portal here.

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