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Interview Alain Ratier, EUMETSAT Director-General

Firstly, Mr. Ratier, mainly for our readers outside of Europe, can you give us a picture of EUMETSAT, what you do and what is your mission?

EUMETSAT was created in 1986 as an intergovernmental organisation to establish, maintain and exploit European systems of operational meteorological satellites. We currently operate four geostationary Meteosat satellites and two polar-orbiting Metop satellites, and we are partners in the Jason-2 ocean altimetry mission exploited jointly with NOAA, NASA and CNES.

We establish user and system requirements for new generation satellite systems that are then developed with ESA, based on a proven cooperation model. The way this works is that ESA develops the first satellite in a series and procures recurrent satellites on our behalf, while EUMETSAT procures all launch services, develops and procures all the ground systems required to control the spacecraft, acquire and process their data and deliver products to users. In the end, we integrate, test and validate the full system and “maintain and exploit” it over 15 to 20 years to deliver data services to users, our “raison d’être”. This requires continuously upgrading our ground segments to eliminate obsolescence, keep efficiency at the highest level and expand our portfolio of products in response to evolving user needs, capitalizing on the latest advances of remote sensing science and our cooperation with other satellite operators. Overall, EUMETSAT bears typically 80% of the cost of a multi-satellite programme with the remaining costs being covered by ESA. More than 80% of our budget goes to industry through EUMETSAT, ESA and joint contracts.

In 2000, the founding convention of EUMETSAT was expanded to include climate monitoring and the detection of climate change. The rationale was synergy and efficiency: modern meteorology and climate monitoring both require global observations of the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and land surfaces, which means that our satellite systems, ground infrastructure and know-how are assets not just for meteorology, but also for cost-efficient monitoring of the climate. The amended convention also introduced the possibility of optional and third party programmes, in addition to our Meteosat and the EUMETSAT Polar System (EPS) programmes, and this paved the way for our involvement in Jason and Copernicus EUMETSAT

In your time as DG of EUMETSAT, what has been the greatest challenge which you have encountered?

I became Director-general on 1 August 2011, one month after the approval of a very ambitious Meteosat Third Generation programme, when the financial crisis of 2008-2009 had turned into an economic/debt crisis hitting most of EUMETSAT’s Member States. In this context, my main challenge was to gain unanimous approval of the EPS-Second Generation (EPS-SG) Programme, and to convince Bulgaria, Estonia, Iceland and Lithuania to join EUMETSAT at a time when financial contributions were ramping up with MTG and EPS-SG. This required a robust, quantitative demonstration of the socio-economic benefits of EPS-SG and containing programme costs whilst fulfilling agreed requirements.

The second challenge was to establish the role of EUMETSAT in Copernicus, and, in this framework, to assure the continuity of the Jason altimetry mission, in cooperation with the USA. We also launched two satellites in 2012, MSG-3 and Metop-B to secure service continuity from both orbits for another 5 to 10 years.

Formed in 1986 as the operational agency for Europe’s meteorological satellites, EUMETSAT now plays a strong role internationally, how significant is this role for EUMETSAT?

This leverages substantial additional benefits to our Member States and users worldwide. Weather and climate have no borders and need to be observed frequently and globally from space, which calls for an international effort to coordinate satellite systems, share data, know-how and best practices, under the umbrella of the World Meteorological Organisation. This is orchestrated by the Coordination Group for Meteorological Satellites ( of which EUMETSAT serves as the permanent secretary. CGMS sets the multi-lateral framework for the bilateral cooperation that we have established with satellite operators of China (CMA and SOA), India (IMD and ISRO), Japan (JMA and JAXA), Russia (Roshydromet), South Korea (KMA) and the USA (NOAA and NASA).

We share satellite systems with the USA. EPS is part of an integrated Joint Polar System with NOAA, based on sharing of orbits, exchange of instruments and interoperability. Likewise, Jason-2/-3 is shared with NOAA, NASA and CNES. This reduces costs on both sides and the value to users is more than the sum of the respective contributions. We also coordinate observing systems with China and exchange data with all partners, to provide third party data services to our own users, thus expanding our product portfolio at marginal costs.

We are also an active member of the Committee of Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS), which we chaired in 2014, and we support GEO, mainly through the contribution of our EUMETCast data broadcast service to the GEONETCast worldwide real-time dissemination system involving also NOAA and CMA. Thus our data are accessible to users in the Asia Pacific Region.

In the context of Copernicus, EUMETSAT is a member of “Europe’s team” with ESA and the EU and we support the Commission in space dialogues with all countries where we have formalised partnerships.

We also have a long established partnership with Africa, including agreements with the African Union Commission, to support EU-funded capacity building initiatives, through the delivery of data access by EUMETCast-Africa and user training.

EUMETSAT has become increasingly involved in issues linked to climate change, how does this affect the day to day operations of the organisation?

METEOSAT The Meteosat satellites have been collecting observations since the late seventies, building up one of the longest climate data record collected by satellite. This creates opportunities and obligations! Our climate activities focus on data rescue, re-calibration and cross-calibration of historical data, reprocessing of physical and geophysical products into long Climate Data Records, validation and international coordination. As part of a pan-European effort to develop climate services, we have developed methods for assessing the maturity of Climate Data Records from a user perspective, to stimulate their wider use in climate research and services, and prepare ourselves to support the Copernicus Climate Change Monitoring Service (C3S).

Our activities also involve our network of Satellite Applications Facilities and are embedded in international cooperative projects involving users, research organisations and service providers.

We also continuously upgrade our IT infrastructure to facilitate fast access to and frequent reprocessing of large volumes of historical data and have designed our future MTG and EPS-SG processing systems to allow maximum flexibility in this respect.

Your main shareholders, the national meteorological offices fund the procurement of new satellites which are tuned to respond to their specific needs through the EUMETSAT operating agency. Can you briefly outline the planning and budgeting process in EUMETSAT?

Eumetsat Member States Our shareholders are our 30 Member States, not their national meteorological services. The latter are certainly a major source of requirements – although not the only one – but cannot fund multi-billion satellite systems.
EUMETSAT operates on the basis of multi-satellite programmes approved by its Member States. For a mandatory programme, like MTG or EPS-SG, the planning process starts with the definition of user requirements, followed by phase 0/A/B activities conducted at system level by EUMETSAT and at space segment level by ESA.

This leads to decisions of our Council on the instruments and satellites to be developed by ESA, and ultimately on a fully detailed programme proposal, including costing and financial planning over typically 25 years. This proposal requires unanimous approval by our 30 Member States, each of them funding the approved programme pro rata its Gross National Income. Then, annual budgets are approved by a qualified majority (two thirds of contributions, one half of Member States).


EUMETSAT delivers satellite data and products in real-time to users worldwide through EUMETCast. How is this working today and how do you see it evolving in the future given the expanding number of possible distribution channels, the availability of metadata and interoperability options and the rolling online archives

EUMETCast delivers to Europe, Africa and the Americas, and we also deliver to the Asia Pacific region through interoperability with China’s CMACast service. Today we deliver data, products and information from our satellite systems and other sources to 4250 low cost VSAT stations owned by more than 3300 registered users worldwide, with 99.9% availability, optimum bandwidth management and high flexibility on data content and volume delivered to individual users. The system is fully scalable to accommodate additional users and has no dependence on local network bandwidth. The migration to the DVBS-2 standard has divided costs by two and increased capacity through the procurement of the capacities of two full transponders from service industry.

EUMETCast Europe coverage @EUMETSAT

As regards the evolution, we have recently traded off various options and concluded that satellite broadcasting was the best solution for the safe and reliable delivery of time-critical data to a widely distributed user community, and will probably remain so for a number of years. We will continue to trade-off possible options in the future, based on prototyping and pilot experiments with partners, considering cloud and big data technologies, in particular in the context of Copernicus, but with particular attention to IT security and service continuity requirements, considering that one purpose of our data is to save lives and to costs.

Our data can also be accessed through our EO Portal, and we are implementing rolling online archives to support Sentinel-3 and our own missions, also to allow recovery in case of local failure of a EUMETCast user station.

We comply with relevant standards for metadata and formats and have proposed interoperability options to ESA in 2013 that may need to be reconsidered in the context of the ongoing Copernicus ground segment studies.

Copernicus is a major programme for Europe in which EUMETSAT is playing a leading role. Can you describe what Copernicus means for you?

Members of the EU Council’s Space Working Party visit the Sentinel-3 control room The Agreement signed with the EU on 7 November 2014 tasks us to operate the Sentinel-3 marine mission, the Sentinel-6 mission and its Jason-3 precursor, and the Sentinel-4 and Sentinel-5 missions, which our Council agreed to implement as part of our MTG and EPS-SG satellite systems to save European tax payers’ money. This means exploiting more satellites, starting with Sentinel-3A in 2015, and more instruments on board our own MTG and Metop-SG satellites from 2020 onwards. This will expand our portfolio of ocean and atmospheric composition products and deliver to the users the benefits of an integrated data stream combining products from Copernicus and EUMETSAT missions, and also from missions of our international partners such as the US, China, India, etc…

How are you now preparing for the Sentinels (S3, S4, S5, S6) and for the distribution of the data which these will generate?

We are supporting ESA in the development of the Sentinel-3 ground segment and system, under a third party programme funded by Copernicus, and are preparing for operations in cooperation with ESA, starting in 2016.

For Sentinel-4 and Sentinel-5, our contribution to the development of the ground segment and system is fully embedded in our MTG and EPS-SG programmes and funded by EUMETSAT. The MTG and EPS-SG ground systems are designed and sized to support both Sentinel missions.

Data will be distributed through different channels, including our EO Portal and EUMETCast. EUMETCast-Europe will deliver Sentinel-3/4/5/6 data and products to any user equipped with a low cost (2 k€) standard terminal, in any EU or EUMETSAT Member State, and we are proud that this will create equal opportunities for all service providers and users, at a modest cost. The service will be presented and demonstrated to users on 11 September, at a Copernicus data access information day organised with the Commission and ESA, at EUMETSAT headquarters, in Darmstadt ( I hope we will have the pleasure to welcome a lot of EARSC members!

What challenges will your team have to deal with concerning the new instruments in terms of data processing and distribution?

The MTG and Metop-SG satellites will deliver one order of magnitude more data than the previous generation, and this undoubtedly raises challenges for the ground segments, but in essence this is not so different from what we experienced already when moving from the first to the second generation of Meteosat.

But the new development challenge for MTG and EPS-SG is that they are both based on two different satellites (MTG-I and -S, Metop SG-A and -B) to be exploited simultaneously and launched in sequence, two years apart. This means we will have to test, verify and validate two successive, very different versions of highly complex processing systems, optimising the allocation of our scientific and engineering resources. The generation of representative test data will also be, as usual, a significant challenge, in particular for the innovative sensors that have no in flight heritage, like the MTG Lightning Imager and the Metop SG-B Ice Cloud Imager.

For data distribution, we have set up a new Muti-Mission Dissemination System capable to handle a variety of channels and the architecture of EUMETCast-Europe is fully scalable. In preparation for the MSG-4 launch, we have already performed successful load tests for 4 MSG, 2 Metop and 2 Sentinel-3 data streams, and the system and services, as procured, can accommodate MTG and EPS-SG data streams in addition. Our new archiving system has also a scalable architecture to accommodate up to 200 PBytes, a level that we will not reach earlier than 2027.

Large smoke plume visible from massive Australian bushfires. The day-time Metop-A Natural Colour RGB (09/02/14 23:19 UTC) shows the smoke in cyan colour, and the night-time Infrared image on the right (10/02/14 11:39 UTC 3.7 channel) shows the very large fires as coloured hot spots – the key shows the temperature in Kelvin. For more information, read our article. Copyright: 2014 EUMETSAT

Will all users have the same level of data access? How can users place requests for data where satellite acquisition programming is required? Will all users have the same level of priority?

All users will have the same level of data access within the throughput capacity of our ground systems. Moreover we can already guarantee that EUMETCast-Europe cannot be saturated and will deliver an integrated data stream combining EUMETSAT, Sentinel-3 and third party data to all users. Copernicus and EUMETSAT data policies will apply to the respective data. Today, for EUMETSAT, all real time data are available free of charge to all users, except the highest resolution, highest frequency Meteosat imagery which is available for a fee for commercial use. All archived data are available free of charge to all users.

There will be no requests for programming satellite acquisition, because all our instruments provide continuous, repetitive and full swath coverage. Only the Flexible Combined Imager of MTG-I is programmable in two modes (full disc and rapid scan), but only one mode will be selected for each satellite in orbit, as required to support monitoring and nowcasting of high impact weather.

Clear skies over Europe as seen in an image taken by EUMETSAT’s Meteosat-10 geostationary satellite at 08:00 (UTC) on 10 March 2014. Copyright: 2014 EUMETSAT


Turning to the question of the relationship between EUMETSAT and the private sector, industry has been a supplier of systems to EUMETSAT, are there also cases where industry already provides services?

We already procure launch, Launch and Early Orbit Phase (LEOP), communication and precise orbit determination services among others, and we now plan to procure an industrial support service for the integration and testing of the MTG ground segment and system. We also rely significantly on support of industry for operations, procuring spacecraft controller and user service support teams, maintenance and development support services. We have recently introduced frame contracts, in particular for scientific and engineering support for Sentinel-3 operations, for which five consortia have been selected to compete on subsequent work orders. Our policy is to use frame or service contracts instead of consultants whenever appropriate, and, since 2013, we procure consultancy support only from duly registered companies. More than 80% of EUMETSAT budgets go to industry.

How can industry strengthen the co-operation with EUMETSAT? What plans do you have to cooperate with private sector service providers?

Our role has clear boundaries: we are a business-neutral provider of data and support services with no involvement in applications or delivery of information services. Our only ambition is that our data creates the broadest range of opportunities. Therefore, we have no plans as such to cooperate specifically with private sector service providers, but our user service and help desk is open to all users, and we are open to meeting service providers – public and private – wishing to know more about our data and services. Our annual user conferences are also open to industry and their attendance is always significant.

Our procurement policy is open competition and value for money, and we wish to create maximum awareness of opportunities in industry. We therefore organise Information Days ahead of the release of each major ITT, and organise generic Industry Days in our Member States to inform on our procurement process and forthcoming opportunities. Our procurements are announced on a dedicated portal, called EUMITS

Do you have connections with companies which are innovating new products and services based on the products which you offer?

We have no partnership, but, given our upstream position in the value adding chain, we have a keen interest in information on new products and services derived from our data, by the public and the private sectors. Our user conferences and other professional events offer opportunities for relevant discussions and we are open to meeting aimed at understanding data requirements of companies.

What can we do to encourage or enable the industrial participation in the provision of services? How do you perceive the role of EARSC in this respect?

We need to facilitate access to data, information and computing, but I have sometimes the impression that the focus on infrastructure is exaggerated in Europe, and may mobilise disproportionate attention and investments in the EO area. It is equally important to create dynamic “ecosystems” involving research, universities and SMEs in order to stimulate innovation, attract students and ideas and set up services combining Earth Observation with other information. The role of EARSC is not easy, as this is by nature a competitive area among its members, more difficult to address than enabling infrastructure. But I think EARSC may look across Europe and elsewhere on best practices and critical factors for stimulating innovation and emergence of new information services. Also, having growth in mind, these services cannot target only the public sector. There must be some open space between Google-type companies and large space industry….


Finally, looking to the future;

How do you see EUMETSAT changing over the next few years?

Our MTG and EPS-SG programmes and our role in Copernicus are now established and I trust the Jason-CS programme can be approved in 2015. This means we have now to deliver these complex systems in cooperation with our partners, but also be prepared to exploit ten satellites in orbit from 2016 onwards. We have reorganised in 2013 to best use our human resources to face these challenges, we have constructed a new office building and are prepared for a moderate growth. But EUMETSAT will be 30 years old in 2016, and surely the transition to a new generation of engineers, scientists and managers is one critical objective that we share with others in the space sector.

What do you see as being the key evolution of services provided by EUMETSAT?

As we operate more complex satellite systems, we will deliver more and more multi-sensor and multi-satellite products and Climate Data Records, also in the context of Copernicus, where the synergy with our more capable missions is a unique asset. Our cooperation with China, India and the USA will also lead to more third party data services.

The way we deliver data services will certainly change in the future. We will respond to the “Big Data” challenge and offer more opportunities to a variety of value-adding chains. But we need to secure continuity of our critical data services to our Member States, and this operational requirement, together with IT security, cannot be underestimated.

At the end of the interview, here is the opportunity for your final thoughts and how your activities could contribute to the future development of the EO geo-information service sector?

As part of a general move in the meteorological community, EUMETSAT has adopted the Open Geospatial Consortium standard and will release a first pilot open Web Map Service. Subject to agreement by our Council, we may develop more advanced Web Services enabling the overlay of our numerical data with other geo-referenced information, to create more opportunities.


BIO: Alain Ratier, EUMETSAT Director-General

Alain Ratier, EUMETSAT Director-General Alain Ratier was appointed EUMETSAT’s fourth Director-General on 1 August 2011. His tenure so far has seen the launch of the third Meteosat Second Generation (MSG-3) and Metop-B satellites, the start of the development of the Meteosat Third Generation (MTG) system and preparation of the next generation EUMETSAT Polar System Second Generation (EPS-SG) programme. Under his leadership, the role of EUMETSAT in the EU Copernicus programme has been recognised and the organisation prepared for the operation of the Sentinel-3 and Jason-3 ocean satellites. He has also overseen the expansion of EUMETSAT’s membership, with Estonia, Lithuania, Iceland and Bulgaria becoming Member States in 2013-2014.

Between 2004 and 2011, Mr Ratier was Deputy Director-General of Météo-France.

Mr Ratier already played a part in shaping EUMETSAT as Director of Programme Development and Deputy Director-General between 1996 and 2004. During this time, he guided the development of the MSG and EUMETSAT Polar System programmes and EUMETSAT’s contribution to Jason-2. He also designed the process for establishing user requirements for future EUMETSAT programmes, starting with MTG.

From 1987 to 1996 Mr Ratier was a Programme Manager and subsequently Associate Director for Earth Observation Programmes at the French Space Agency (CNES). There, he contributed to the expansion of the French Earth observation programme to include atmospheric, oceanographic and climate sciences.

Mr Ratier’s career began at Météo-France in 1983, where he spent five years in research and development activities on modelling of the upper ocean and air-sea interactions and on data assimilation.

Mr Ratier graduated from the École Polytechnique in 1981. He was awarded an engineering diploma from the French National School of Meteorology and also holds a degree in oceanography from Paris VI University. He is a member of the French Marine Academy and the Air and Space Academy.

Mr Ratier is married with three children