News - November 17, 2005

Space projects loom for Wageningen UR

He was asked because he is independent and knows how the European space travel organisation ESA works. Professor Michael Schaepman was chair of the inspection committee of the ESA Earth Observation Envelope Programme (EOEP). The scientific programme has a budget of 1.2 billion euros and some of it is likely to come Wageningen’s way.

Scientists in the ESA observation project focus on four aspects: the earth’s surface, climate, the relation between geosphere and biosphere, and the influence of human activity on the atmosphere and marine environment. After the earthquake in Pakistan, for example, satellite images from the programme were used to get rescue workers to the worst hit areas. ‘What is the scientific benefit of a satellite mission for the European community?’ This was the central question that the inspection committee had to answer. Indirectly this is a financial matter, for it is the scientific instruments on board a satellite that make up the lion’s share of the costs of a satellite mission. ‘A mission costs between eighty and five hundred million euros, including the launch,’ tells Schaepman. ‘Launching a rocket costs between twenty and thirty million euros.’

The complexity of ESA is also reflected in the way scientific research programmes are allotted space in a satellite. ‘Out of twenty proposals, five are selected for further examination, but in the end only one or two will actually make it,’ according to Schaepman. Each research proposal is put together by many research institutes from different European countries. The institutes, and by extension the governments of the countries where they reside, therefore have a vested interested in ‘their’ research proposal being chosen. ESA is regularly beseiged by lobbying scientists and policymakers.

ESA’s role is to translate the research proposals into satellite missions. Technicians make the measuring instruments required to carry out the research. The experimental instruments then have to be tested for their scientific merit but also for their financial and technical feasibility. Generally speaking the inspection committee was very satisfied, according to Schaepman. That the previously expensive and complex data processing used in satellites has been transformed to a flexible, user-friendly system is a considerable improvement. It is also a good sign that eighty to ninety percent of the innovative technology for the experimental instruments is actually used and even re-used. According to the committee, however, ESA needs to be more open in how research projects are tested, technically and financially. In Schaepman’s view, the organisation would do well to follow the example of how scientists report and discuss their research in a public way.

Schaepman’s committee examined a number of research proposals including Spectra and EarthCare. Spectra focuses on the role of vegetation in the carbon cycle and climate change. EarthCare focuses on the relation between clouds, radiation, atmosphere and climate change. In the end EarthCare was chosen. ‘My choice would have been to combine EarthCare with Spectra,’ continues Schaepman, ‘But that was not possible financially.’ EarthCare was deemed to have more scientific value.

Good news
That EarthCare was chosen is good news for Wageningen UR, thinks Schaepman. ‘The programme is about atmospheric chemistry – an aspect well covered by the Meteorology group – and also research on the earth’s surface, something the Centre for Geo-Information is good at.’ More important is that the choice for EarthCare means a shift in focus, which is even better for Wageningen UR. ‘Future satellite missions will focus on biospheric and atmospheric chemistry, and this will have considerable advantages for Wageningen UR, the ministry of agriculture and the Netherlands.’

Schaepman will recommend that the Dutch delegation to the ministerial conference invest as much money as possible, as this will be easily recouped by Dutch participation in the research. This he said of course as a Wageningen scientist rather than as chair of the inspection committee.

Martin Woestenburg