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Spain makes its 'breakthough' in space

Jonathan Amos | 08:22 UK time, Monday, 2 November 2009

Europe's water mission, Smos, is a really big deal for Spain.

The satellite, sent into orbit from Plesetsk in northern Russia in the early hours of Monday, marked something of a coming of age.

Spain has been increasing its contribution to the European Space Agency for a number of years now, and is currently the fifth largest member financially - behind Germany, France, Italy and the UK.

The programme cost of the Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity (Smos) satellite is in the region of 315m euros. France, one of the great power-houses of European space, has put more than 100m euros into the mission, but Spain is also sitting in the front seat having contributed 70m euros.

Bar chart showing Spanish contributions to Esa

Spanish engineers have spent something like 15 years developing the spacecraft's novel instrument - Miras.

Jorge Lomba is from the Centre for the Development of Industrial Technology (CDTI) in Madrid. He told me just how important Smos was to his country:

"We have launched national missions but for something which is a contribution to European programmes, this is by far the largest. Because this is quite complete in the sense that we have leadership in the instrument, industrial leadership in the scientific centres in Spain, and leadership in one of the two principal investigators in Jordi Font."

You can think of the CDTI as the Spanish space office. It's a small group of civil servants who manage Spanish space activity. Spain is very similar in that sense to the UK in that neither country has a space agency.

Jean-Jacques Dordain, the director-general of Esa, was very quick to praise Spain after Monday's successful launch.

"With Smos, Spanish industry has made a breakthrough from being an equipment supplier to a system provider with a very complex instrument."
Meteorologists, hydrologists and climatologists have high hopes for Smos and its Miras instrument.

Artist's impression of Smos

Miras has a "Y" configuration that gives the spacecraft a very interesting shape. I've compared it to a "space helicopter", although I should stress that it is nothing of the sort and the rotor-like arms of Miras do not turn.

From a certain angle (look at the artist's impression on this page), Smos is also reminiscent of one of the vehicles in the Star Wars movies. I'm sure those who know their X-wings from their Millennium Falcons will be able to tell me which one.

It seems to be a feature of the European Space Agency's Earth Explorer series of satellites that they're all visually striking.

Miras should gather some remarkable new data on the wetness of soils and the saltiness of the oceans.

These features tell scientists about the constant exchange of water between the planet's surface and the atmosphere. The data should improve weather forecasts made several weeks ahead.

Miras instrumentUnderstanding the salinity of sea-water gives climatologists clues about global ocean currents. It is the mass movement of water between the world's ocean basins that helps drive the climate system.

Of course, for Spain, what it would dearly like now is for Smos - or at least its instrument - to become recurrent mission, and even now it is working hard to improve the capabilities of a future Miras.

It's a tough one, though. Esa makes scientific satellites. Once it's done something, it tends not to re-visit it.

Earth observation instruments with pressing ongoing value are expected to be taken up by Eumetsat, the European meteorological satellite service. But it is about to start big programmes (jointly with Esa) to upgrade its existing weather satellites.

The third generation of the Meteosat series and future Metop spacecraft will cost billions. It is unclear at the moment where the Spanish Smos expertise and excellence developed over the past 15 years could be picked up.

But this is a perennial problem for Europe - turning high-value scientific satellites into ongoing operational programmes. And in the midst of a credit crunch, the problem is doubly difficult.

Watch this space.

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