Jason and the quest for funding
We're a month away from a decision on a very important future space mission and I thought I'd post about it now if only to mark the calendar.
It also happens to pick up on a theme I raised in yesterday's entry about turning scientific satellites into ongoing operational programmes.
The future satellite is Jason-3.
It would be the fourth incarnation of an altimeter spacecraft that has already returned a remarkable 17-year data-set on sea-level height.
The funding situation (that is, whether there is enough) will be determined at a December council meeting of Eumetsat, the organisation that looks after Europe's meteorological satellite service.
Jason-3 is something of a test case. It will test how serious nations are about maintaining continuous, long-term, cross-calibrated data on key environmental parameters... in the midst of a credit crunch.
Everyone you speak to says this is a really important mission, but the issue as ever, is who is going to pay for it. And there is a nice little UK dimension to all of this which I'll go into shortly.
To explain Jason's significance to those not aware of the programme, it is the series of spacecraft that has detailed the recent steady rise of global waters by about 3mm per year.
Critically, because each succeeding spacecraft in the series was able to match its measurements directly against its predecessor in orbit, the data is "gold standard". It is this quality of continuity that enables scientists to discern real trends.
The story goes back to 1992 and the launch of the Topex/Poseidon mission. The data quest was then taken up by the Jason-1 satellite (launched in 2001) and by Jason-2 (launched in 2008).
Jason-1 is still working but it will fail; all satellites eventually fail. This would leave just Jason-2 in orbit. That being the case, preparation for its successor must begin soon if the space baton is not to be dropped when the digits eventually flip on Jason-2.
Knowing ocean surface elevation has many and varied applications, both short-term and long-term.
Just as surface air pressure reveals what the atmosphere is doing up above, so ocean height will betray details about the behaviour of water down below.
The data gives clues to temperature and salinity. When combined with gravity information, it will also indicate current direction and speed.
The oceans store vast amounts of heat from the Sun; and how they move that energy around the globe and interact with the atmosphere are what drive key elements of our weather and the climate system.
Put simply, to understand climate you have to understand the oceans, and one of the best ways to understand the oceans globally is to measure surface elevation.
All good stuff, but back to the Jason-3 budget.
In the past, Jason has been led by the US and France. That will continue to be the case.
Its importance though to meteorologists has meant that Eumetsat has become involved in a big way; as has the EU because of its Earth monitoring project called GMES.
The total cost of the mission is of the order of 252m euros, of which Europe will cover about 146m. (One of the big contributions from the US will be the provision of a launcher.)
The numbers then stack up like this: the European Commission will provide 26m, the European Space Agency will put in 7m; and the French, as one of the senior partners, will sign off almost 49m. The French, for example, will build the satellite platform.
That leaves just over 63m from Eumetsat. The organisation is looking for a commitment in December of 90% of that figure to get the Jason-3 project up and running.
Now, here's the point of all this. Jason-3 is not a mandatory programme within Eumetsat; it is an optional programme. If a member state decides it likes the project, it "chooses" to subscribe.
Usually, although not always, the subscription is made at the comparative Gross National Income (GNI) level of the member state within Eumetsat.
For the UK, for example, the GNI Eumetsat figure is 16.173%. It is a large figure because Britain is one of the richest nations in Europe.
You can see straightaway, therefore, that if the Jason-3 programme is going to clear the 90% bar in December, the decision the London government makes on funding could be critical.
I mentioned Jason-3 to the British science minister Lord Drayson when I saw him a couple of weeks ago in the Palace of Westminster and he confirmed that discussions within government were ongoing.
It would be wrong to suggest that Jason-3 hangs on the British. Other Eumetsat delegations will play their part.
What it does emphasise, however, is the need to find ways of funding ongoing flagship programmes like Jason that don't involve protracted re-negotiation every five years.
Watch this space.