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France, Germany Pressing Ahead with Greenhouse Gas Monitoring Satellite

(by Peter B. de Selding — December 8, 2015)

LE BOURGET, France — The French and German space ministers on Dec. 8 reaffirmed their commitment to launch a methane-measuring satellite to debut what they said should be a globally recognized system to verify government commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Appearing at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP21, here, Germany’s federal coordinator for German aerospace policy, Brigitte Zypries, and French Research Minister Thierry Mandon put their governments solidly behind a project that is six years behind schedule.

The Merlin satellite originally was the beneficiary of a rare endorsement by the German and French heads of state in 2010. Despite the high-level backing, the project was submerged by financial issues in both nations and the technology challenge of building the principal lidar instrument.

Lidars have been a headache at the European Space Agency as well, leading to a Future Laser Technology, or Fulas, research project at the 22-nation agency to clear hurdles in its own satellite missions.

But with the funding now cleared in Paris and Berlin, and the lidar technology seen as feasible if still challenging, Merlin earlier this year was given a fresh go-ahead.

The mission is now expected to cost some 250 million euros ($266 million), including the construction and launch of the satellite, three years of operations in low Earth orbit and the associated ground infrastructure.

A 2020 launch on a Europeanized Russian Soyuz rocket or Europe’s Vega small-satellite launcher is scheduled, with the final launcher choice to be made based on what co-passengers can be found to share the costs. Merlin managers have already secured a firm, fixed-price option with launch service provider Arianespace of Evry, France, that will not change whichever of the two vehicles is selected.

Merlin program officials said they had been approached by Spaceflight Industries of Tukwila, Washington, with a proposal to launch Merlin as part of a mission carrying multiple satellites aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

While conceding their interest in the Spaceflight offer, these officials said Merlin, as a European government mission, should launch on a European rocket unless one is not available. To that end, they are making Merlin compatible with India’s PSLV rocket in case there is a problem with Soyuz or Vega.

France will be contributing 100 million euros to the Merlin program, including a new-generation Myriade satellite platform and much of the ground segment. Germany’s 150 million euros in Merlin investment is directed mainly at the lidar instrument, to be built at Airbus Defence and Space’s Ottobrunn, Germany, facility.

Gerd Gruppe, a member of the executive board of the German Aerospace Center, DLR, and the head of DLR’s Space Administration, said DLR would send out a formal request for bids to Airbus before the end of December.

Gruppe said DLR would set a deadline for proposals of late March, with a formal contract for the construction of the Merlin lidar to be signed by July.

Matthias Alpers, Merlin project manager at DLR, said a critical design review of the lidar instrument should be completed in the summer of 2017, with the instrument’s delivery to France for integration into the satellite platform in 2019.

Alpers said elements of the lidar technology have been tested aboard Germany’s Halo — high-altitude, long-range — research aircraft in a series of flights earlier this year.

But he conceded that despite the testing, much of what the Merlin lidar will do to measure methane emissions is new technology and that a three-year construction schedule “is very challenging. Development of the lidar has certainly been more difficult than we had foreseen” when the project was first approved, he said.

Bruno Millet, Merlin project manager at the French space agency, CNES, said the Myriade satellite platform selected for the mission, and the choice of the Soyuz or Vega rockets, imposes constraints on the size of the satellite payload. At launch, Merlin is expected to weigh 400 kilograms.

To further demonstrate its bona fides at the COP21 conference, the French government announced Dec. 8 that it was putting 25 million euros of seed financing into a carbon dioxide measuring satellite called MicroCarb.

If other nations join France, MicroCarb could be launched in 2020 using a similar Myriade platform, which CNES developed. MicroCarb would follow Japan’s Gosat satellite launched in 2009 and NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory, OCO-2, launched in 2014.

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