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Science, People & Politics, issue 4 (Oct.-Dec.), volume ii (2011), VII.

Meteorologists shed political shackles
By Helen Gavaghan*
EUMETSAT 25 years,
by Declan Murphy.
Hardback. July 2011.
Publisher: EUMETSAT (Darmstadt).
ISBN:978-92-9110-091-0

"Forecasting the weather by scientific means is what mathematicians
term an initial value problem."

There are two essentials for weather forecasting: an accurate picture of conditions at the beginning of a forecast period**; and availability of predictions in time to be usable. It is also a truism that as a discipline meteorology is impracticable at any locale if data are not available across international boundaries, without regard for local or regional politics.

Declan Murphy begins his history of EUMETSAT by stating these essentials. He reminds readers the first European meteorological satellite was launched to geostationary orbit by the European Space Agency. Weighing in at 697 kilograms, Meteosat-1 was lofted by a Delta rocket from the Eastern Test Range in the US on 23rd November, 1977 (1977 108A - TRW Space Log 1957 - 1987).

Geostationary satellites like Meteosat 1 maintain a position in relationship to a spot on the equator by orbiting at an altitude of 36,000 kilometres, giving them velocity necessary to stay in orbit which keeps them above the same location on the equator. They monitor the same geographic area constantly. In space-speak that view is known as the satellite's foot print. EUMETSAT's geostationary orbiters have Europe, Africa, the Atlantic approach to Europe, and the Middle East within view.

Eight and a half years after Meteosat-1's launch, on 19th June, 1986 a brand new intergovernmental organization (IGO) of 16 Western European nations opened its doors for the business of guiding Europe's meteorological aspirations in space. I trace the history of the institution's emergence from its parent, ESA, in detail in the history I wrote of EUMETSAT (EUMETSAT, 2001) up to 1992. Declan Murphy moves the story on.

EUMETSAT is an acronym for the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites. Any history of EUMETSAT must start with the IGO's purpose, which is made clear in its name.

The first convention says,

"The primary objective of EUMETSAT is to establish, maintain and exploit European systems of operational meteorological satellites, taking into account as far as possible the recommendations of the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO)."
Article 2 (1) of the first convention.

The heavy loss to nations from death, injury, and financial losses accompanying severe weather events, made worse by lack of accurate forecasting, shows why the primary objective is as stated, and why EUMETSAT has grown.

In the first decade of the 21st Century EUMETSAT expanded to include Eastern European countries among its Member States. In its lifetime since 1986 it has entered international agreements with, among others, the European Commission (EC), the European Space Agency (ESA), African organisations and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

From being a tiny institution with a staff of four in a town house in Darmstadt, Germany, EUMETSAT has grown to employ 250 people, with roughly the same number of consultants. It operates its own ground system, controls its own satellites, and it has a new objective in its revised convention; namely, to monitor climate change data on an operational basis.

As a legal entity, EUMETSAT is wholly separate from either the EC or ESA. Member States transfer limited Sovereignty to EUMETSAT for the purpose of fulfilling its remit as outlined in its Convention.

Not only has the national membership grown, but in the 34 years since ESA launched Meteosat 1, Europe's weather satellites have multiplied and acquired more technical sophistication. By mid 2011 the organisation's fleet comprised geostationary and polar orbiters.

The former segued via a transition programme, MTP, from the first to the Second Generation (MSG). MTP was the first satellite initiated wholly by EUMETSAT, working in close co-operation with ESA. MTP offered a rapid scanning service, allowing it to focus in greater detail on smaller regions, in particular as part of the mesoscale alpine experiment in 1999, gathering meteorological and hydrological data.

Meteosat's great strength, though, is the big picture it records of atmospheric conditions in its view. The Meteosat series are one of several girdling the Earth and monitoring the whole Earth's weather development.

Launched 27th August, 2002 MSG 1 became Meteosat 8 once it was in orbit, while MSG 3 (This should be MSG 2, not 3. This error was corrected within 24hrs in line with magazine policy.), launched in 2005, became operational in April 2007, and, as such, was redesignated Meteosat 9. Two more second generation satellites are waiting for launch. The second of these, MSG 4, which will become Meteosat 11, gained approval only in March 2003, after a battle over costs fought during the years from 1999.

Murphy reports that had the initial second generation meteosat programme included four, rather than three, satellites the costs would not have been so high.

He also describes the drama of MSG-1's launch. I was in French Guiana as a member of the European press corps for the launch and so witnessed first hand what he describes.

MSG-1 had a short launch window. If launched outside that time it would waste fuel getting into position, and with the correct orientation, thus cutting its serviceable time in orbit. A ground system problem bust the launch window. EUMETSAT aborted. Murphy reports that a quick calculation by Tillman Mohr, then director-general of EUMETSAT, showed a launch outside the window would cost Eumetsat 100 million euros. Mohr, writes Murphy, backed the abort decision by Sergei Roti, head of EUMETSAT's geostationary programme.

The next day the launch went smoothly.

The third generation, reports Murphy, may well have a tandem configuration with sounders, imagers and lightening detectors.

Before moving from the history of EUMETSAT's geostationary satellites to its polar orbiters it is worth noting one last point. In mid 2011 EUMETSAT still had a spare satellite from its earliest days in orbit over the Indian ocean, but had failed to sell licensing agreements to the Indians for use of its data, despite acknowledgement the data were of value. Is there any reason why satellite data exploitation might not be a candidate contract for the Asia Development Bank?

For all their strengths there are two problems with geostationary satellite. They cannot see high latitudes, and they are a long way from the Earth.

In 2006 EUMETSAT solved these problems for itself by launching Europe's first polar orbiting satellite, Metop A, the culmination of a twenty-year slog. Across the Atlantic the US had long had polar orbiting weather satellites.

Metop A is part of EUMETSAT's one and a half billion Euro polar satellite programme (EPS), estimated at 1994 economic conditions. Metop A races round the Earth at an altitude of 840 kilometres, crossing from Northern to Southern hemisphere at 9.30 am local solar time. Designed to last five-years, with an orbit viewing all parts of the Earth once every five days, Metop is one of two satellites providing morning and afternoon views of the Earth. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provides the second as part of the Initial Joint Polar-Orbiting Operational Satellite System. Just before publication of this article Metop A had suffered a problem which a EUMETSAT spokesman said he thought had been solved.

Murphy's account shows that getting a polar orbiting programme off the ground was hard work technically, politically, industrially and diplomatically.

Problems arose in part because of tensions in built in EUMETSAT's relationship with ESA. The problems are not the fault of either organization, but spring from their different remits and different procurement policy.

EUMETSAT's remit is operational. Only as a secondary consideration must it push technical boundaries.

Its Convention says that to execute its objectives EUMETSAT shall,

"...take maximum advantage of the technologies developed in Europe, in particular in the field of meteorological satellites by providing for operational continuation of the programmes that have proved technically successful and cost effective."
Article 2 (3)(a) of the first convention.

By contrast ESA's remit is to keep European space technology at the cutting edge. These ought not to be diametrically opposing aims, especially given that ESA could prove, or otherwise, the feasibility, on its mandatory science research satellites, of technology of potential value to EUMETSAT.

The procurement difficulties are less tractable, because ESA applies the principal of "juste retour". What a country puts in financially, it gets out proportionally. By contrast EUMETSAT goes out to competitive tender.

Competitive tendering is designed to keep costs realistic, and priced to meet the specifications. For EUMETSAT reliability is of more significance than innovative technology.

EUMETSAT's innovative ability comes to the fore once the data are collected, and initial processing has calibrated raw data against external benchmarks, and assigned geographic location. Then the scientists and meteorologists of the member states play the frequencies, track spectral shifts, probe how each density, polarization, combination and spike relates to an atmospheric physical or chemical phenomenon at different altitudes sliced through air.

The national meteorological services of EUMETSAT's Member States perform their magic in EUMETSAT's distributed network of satellite application facilities, which were only just coming into existence when I wrote my history of EUMETSAT in 2000.

At that time Murphy headed the Irish meteorological service (1989 to 2009). From 2004 to 2008 he chaired EUMETSAT's council. He has an insider's view, and he reports disagreement concerning application of the industrial return principle, particularly within the polar orbiting program.

When it came to EPS, Council deliberations, says Murphy, have leaned toward a flexible interpretation of competitive tendering, but he does not give the detail which would allow that observation to be substantiated.

With so much at stake perhaps his observation is not surprising: public safety, the public purse, and an economic downturn with rising unemployment. High stakes heighten sensitivity. Add to that the need to negotiate data denial arrangements with the US in the event of War and EPS project management begins to look like an explosive mix.

And now EUMETSAT is doing business with the European Commission in the field of oceanography.

What is unclear to me from Murphy's account is whether disagreement is among EUMETSAT Member States, or is between ESA and EUMETSAT. There is no need for disagreement between the two IGOs, but without access to the primary sources it is hard to say what is happening.

What is clear is that EUMETSAT has come a long way in 25 years. It is now a powerful organization, spending billions, making international agreements in areas of endeavour touching on the national security of many nations, and it is doing so globally. Aerospace, food security, transport and commerce, these all depend on good weather forecasting, and climate change is, indeed, second only to nuclear winter as the great threat of our day.

In such circumstances I would have liked to see much more in this book by Murphy about a history of oversight of this institution.


The history is available as a PDF file on EUMETSAT's website. Simply put history into the search engine.

Declan Murphy was head of the Irish Meteorological Weather Service from 1989 to 2009 and head of EUMETSAT's council between 2004 and 2008.

Helen Gavaghan* wrote the First History of EUMETSAT (2001), ISBN:92-9110-040-4, published by EUMETSAT (Darmstadt), won an Alfred P Sloan Foundation Fellowship and wrote Something New Under the Sun, Satellites and the Beginning of the Space Age (1997). She is the publisher and editor of Science, People & Politics.

Further reading
**Whither weather forecasting and climate services.
An interview with Dr Tillman Mohr, first director-general of EUMETSAT.
www.gavaghancommunications.com/sppweather.html

Satellite operator faces critical months.
www.gavaghancommunications.com/eumetsat.html

The first History of EUMETSAT.
www.gavaghancommunications.com/page3.html, commissioned, edited and published in English and French by EUMETSAT.

Volume I submitted for voluntary legal deposit: DATE TO BE INSERTED WHEN THE TITLE IS SUBMITTED.

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