TECHNOLOGY FEATURES 3. Eumetsat in 2009.

Satellite operator faces critical months
by Helen Gavaghan Darmstadt and Mytholmroyd

Citing the World Bank, Mikael Rattenborg, director of operations at the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT), told journalists last Thursday (4th December, 2009) that severe weather events are increasing. His second significant message was that if the organisation does not receive full funding for its planned follow-on satellite mission (Jason-3) to measure sea-surface height its internationally mandated mission to collect data crucial for climate change scientists is in jeopardy.

Mr Rattenborg said that he hoped EUMETSAT's leading role in collecting climate data would be confirmed during the UN-sponsored climate change talks in Copenhagen this week and next, but that the litmus test would be whether Jason-3 receives funding.

He was speaking at an event billed by EUMETSAT as an effort to extend their contact with journalists covering its activities. Some 25 of us from northern, central and western Europe attended.

The EUMETSAT Council had just made the decision to extend the deadline for funding Jason-3 until 31st January, 2010, and a communique in the IGO's three official languages (English, French and German) was handed by secretariat staff to journalists when we arrived.

EUMETSAT is an intergovernmental organisation (IGO) with responsibility for planning the instruments on Europe's weather satellites, for operating the satellites and ground stations, for collecting operational climate change data and for feeding data to the national weather services of its Members States and to a network of facilities developing more detailed analytic products. According to its website, on 7th December 2009 EUMETSAT had 26 Member States. For the future, said Mr Rattenborg, the organisation wants to recruit Member States from all those countries that are likely at some stage to become members of the European Union. EUMETSAT and the EU are legally unrelated intergovernmental bodies.

The IGO was founded to provide weather data from space 24 hours a day, 365 days a year without any interruptions. As an operational body the organisation has eschewed risky R&D that might go wrong and undermine its operational role. This operational rather than research approach was also incorporated into its Convention when the Member States added the role of providing operational climate monitoring data to its original mission of collecting weather data. When I asked if these two roles - monitoring weather and data relevant to climate change - led to internal tensions Mr Rattenborg said, "Our stakeholders are the National Weather Services. We do climate but not to the detriment of weather."

The organisation's satellites are in two types of orbit: geostationary and polar. Geostationary satellites appear stationary with respect to the Earth, and EUMETSAT's geostationary satellites capture images of Europe and to the edge of Afghanistan and of Africa. The polar orbiting satellites view the whole Earth. This week the European Space Agency, which develops EUMETSAT's satellites, will award the prime contract for the next generation of geostationary meteorological satellites.

A significant issue that EUMETSAT needs to resolve includes harmonisation of data from different instruments made in different technological eras so that scientists are not comparing apples with pears as they look for changes in weather patterns and, separately, look for signals in climate data. The organisation is also interested in efforts to couple computer models of the ocean and the atmosphere. And instrumentation for the future will include lightening detection to improve warnings of severe thunderstorms.

Mr Rattenborg and his colleagues spoke through the afternoon in a briefing room which actually extends balcony like, with a great curving glass wall, in a way that meant we journalists all looked down into the operational control room visible behind the speakers. Blinking screens and world maps were visible and screens and screens of numbers as raw data streamed from satellite to antennas to the control room. There to be turned into numbers representing patterns of radiation levels. Numbers indicative of basic atmospheric properties.

If you've ever taken a photograph, be it with a digital or a pinhole camera, then you also have captured raw radiation data. But you were not 36 000-kilometres away from your subject peering through a haze of clouds, or blinded by reflections. Nor were you 800 kilometres away racing past your subect at 5 miles a second, switching and combining filters as you passed. And your photograph was not essential to warning towns, cities, nations and continents of approaching storms, tornados or hurricanes. Your photograph was not the basis of national decisions about how to spend millions of pounds. That is what EUMETSAT and its sister agencies do.

This article about EUMETSAT was published here on for the first time on 23.7.10. I previously published the article in December 2009 on a free service offered by Declaration of potential conflict of interest: EUMETSAT paid my travel expenses and my hotel bill for the trip to Darmstadt. EUMETSAT is an intergovernmental organisation more properly known as The European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites.

Words, layout and code, Helen Gavaghan©. All rights reserved.