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Interview with Mr. Gerard Brachet, chairman of the United Nations Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN COPUOS)

In this issue of EOMAG, EARSC will have the opportunity to feature an interview with Mr. Gerard Brachet.

First of all, thank you very much for taking some time from your busy agenda and giving us the occasion to talk about some aspects relevant for the Earth Observation sector.

A/ About your experience

View on the evolution of satellite-based Earth Observation from the 70s to today.

Satellite-based Earth observation has evolved tremendously from the 70s in the various fields of meteorology, ocean sciences, ice, land and vegetation monitoring, geodetic applications and survey of the gravity and magnetic fields, etc.
Operational satellites dedicated to meteorological observations are much more capable, as testified for example by the data collection capability of the MSG and EPS/Metop series in Europe. As an illustration, a quick look at the IASI data from Metop-1 shows that the impact on numerical weather forecasting should be significant.
Also, experimental satellites such as TRMM have demonstrated their capability to monitor and measure precipitations in the tropical areas, opening the way to operational monitoring of the water cycle between the atmosphere, the oceans and the land masses.
In ocean sciences, the Topex-Poseidon – Jason series of ocean topography satellites have far exceeded their performance targets and provide an invaluable flow of continuous data since 1992, contributing major observation sets to the monitoring of not only global ocean circulation but also the global warming affecting our planet.
Experimental spacecraft such as the European Envisat, the NASA Aqua, … , are delivering high quality data in atmospheric chemistry and ocean surface colour. It is too bad that an operational series of more compact and lower cost satellites are not taking over their excellent data collection capability!
In land monitoring, the Spot series of spacecraft continues, after more than 20 years, to provide excellent high resolution imagery on an operational basis and the continuous growth of Spot Image’s turnover is a good indicator that the market is indeed there. I expect that our friends from India have the same experience with the use of optical imagery from their IRS series. C-Band radar imagery from Radarsat-1 is also provided on an operational basis, and there are hopes that Radarsat-2 will finally get to orbit later this year. In addition, very high resolution optical imagers have been introduced with a very strong support from the US government, opening the way for a new range of GIS applications. Similarly, the recent launches of the first of the Cosmo-Skymed and TerraSar-X satellites, delivering high resolution X-band radar imagery, should boost the applications based on radar imagery, which are still today far behind those of optical imagery.
The area of geodesy has also much benefited from advances in satellite-based navigation technologies such as GPS, for examples for tectonic motions monitoring, and recent successes such as the GRACE twin satellites system, to be followed by the forthcoming ESA GOCE spacecraft, have produced terrific advances in Earth gravity field determination, including its temporal variations at regional and local levels, an indicator of shifting water bodies within the land masses.
Another phenomenon to note is of course the capabilities offered by small to very small observation spacecraft, thanks to major progresses made in many areas of satellite technology, which have opened the way for lower cost space-based Earth observation systems, thus making them accessible to less developed (and less rich) countries. The continuous interest for such satellite systems shown by many new entrants such as Algeria, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Egypt, Korea, Malaysia, Morocco, Nigeria, Thailand, Taiwan, etc. (and this list is increasing every month!) is a good indicator that Earth Observation from space is still in a growing phase. Indeed, my own prediction is that it will continue to grow for a very long time, if only because of the very wide spectrum of applications areas.

Is European observation on the right track?

Europe has historically played a very significant role in the development of Earth Observation systems and applications, but this role is not as visible as it should be. The introduction of the GMES initiative in the late 90s following the “Baveno declaration” in 1998, was meant to create a more formal and politically visible framework for the European efforts in this area. Unfortunately, the European Commission was rather slow in taking it up and in developing a concrete plan for its implementation. In addition, the EC did not understand that the role of the EU is to facilitate space policy making at European level, not to compete with ESA. To be fair, ESA was also a bit worried at any initiative coming from Brussels. This has led to a very slow build up of the GMES programme, which however seems now to be on track via a services approach.
But I feel that there is a continuous ambiguity about what the EU is expecting from ESA. ESA, on its part, continues to ignore national and industry initiatives and focuses only on its own Sentinel projects, which I believe is a major mistake. It seems that ESA has not learned any lessons from the history of Earth Observation in Europe, where it never managed to play a really leadership role, comparable for example to the very successful ESA space sciences programme. The setting up of the Living Planet programme about ten years ago was supposed to remedy this situation but its level of funding is too low, is has suffered from the failure of the launch of its first Explorer satellite (Cryosat) and its future is not entirely clear.
I believe that, outside meteorological observations which are very well taken care of by EUMETSAT, the Jason follow-ons, TerraSAR-X, Cosmo-Skymed, Pleiades and AstroTerra programmes, all of them initiated and managed outside the ESA framework, will provide the backbone of operational European capabilities in Earth Observation during the next decade or so.

Cooperation in space policy actions with third parties, cooperative efforts between agencies and industry

First of all, who are the third parties? If you refer to international partners such as NASA NOAA, JAXA, ISRO, etc., they are already well involved in various cooperative schemes with European Partners. I have seen the excellent CNES/NASA cooperation around Topex-Poseidon and Jason develop since the mid 80s and have drawn an interesting conclusion from this success: a successful cooperation between such agencies requires a good mix between a balanced and clear cooperation agreement for the proper management of the project and a highly competitive environment between the scientific teams who analyse the data, with good, real-time feedback from the scientific teams to the project teams. This, of course, is happening all the time in space science projects, but is not frequent enough in Earth observation programmes, maybe because they tend to hesitate between the constraints of an operational system and a more science driven management style.
Concerning the cooperative efforts between agencies and industry, I will say the following: first the primary role of agencies is to fund basic Research and Technology so that industry masters the tools to be competitive. But supporting R & T is not enough if it is not applied in concrete space projects. These can be 100% funded by government agencies as with traditional ESA projects, or be funded in partnership between agencies and industry if there is a sufficient estimated market potential, as in the TerraSAR-X arrangement between DLR and Astrium, or by other arrangements such as the one I experimented with the setting up of SPOT Image in the early 80s, whereby the agency bears the cost of the satellites and launches and the commercial operator concentrates on market development and covers operating costs initially, until the market has sufficiently developed for it to start supporting the space segment.
These various economic models have their advantages and their drawbacks but what need to be said is that Earth Observation from space is in a very awkward situation: one finds all kinds of economic models, from scientific research and meteorological observations which are considered public goods, leading to data being exchanged freely without charge, to high resolution imagery which is considered a commercial commodity, and yet remains under tight government control because of international foreign policy and security issues. In between, of course, you find a mix of both situations. That does not make it easy to define a clear and stable policy for data access, and yet such clear and stable policy is absolutely essential for industry to be able to invest in satellite-based Earth observation systems.

B/ Role of EO at COPUOS

Role of COPUOS in space policy

COPUOS is a Committee of the UN General Assembly established in 1959. It has currently 67 member states and more than 40 permanent observers, many of them international non government organizations. COPUOS developed the international legal framework for space activities from the very important founding text, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, to other international treaties dealing with state responsibility to recommendations and/or guidelines which have been developed over the years. For example, the most recent text is the Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines adopted earlier this year, very important to safeguard the space environment in near Earth orbits such as the heliosynchronous orbits where many EO satellites operate. More specifically, In the field of Earth Observation, the main text prepared by COPUOS was the UNGA Resolution number 41/65 of December 1986, mostly known under the title of the Principles on Remote Sensing. I was very much involved in its elaboration in the early 80s and believe that it still remains today a very adequate set of principles, although some countries such as Brazil are actively promoting a revision of this text.

The Space Applications Programme implemented by the UN OOSA

The COPUOS reviews and approves every year the Space Application Program of the United Nations, managed by the Office for Outer Space Affairs (OOSA), which is mostly aimed at capacity building in the developing countries.
A large part of the SAP is linked to EO applications to the needs of developing countries in areas such as land management, water resources, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, etc. Recently, a new UN program was approved, called SPIDER (United Nations Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response), which aims at facilitating space applications to support disaster management. The implementation of this new program is just starting in 2007 and more information can be found on the UN OOSA site at HYPERLINK “”

Involvement in GMES and GEOSS

COPUOS is not directly involved in GMES, which is a purely European initiative and programme, nor in GEOSS which an international program supported by the “Group on Earth Observation” (GEO), established outside the UN framework.
However, because the states members of COPUOS are concerned that Space Technology must be exploited fully to support understanding and monitoring of climate and other global changes affecting our planet, I have actively pushed setting up a mechanism to facilitate exchange of information and views from the UN COPUOS to the GEO and back. This is easier said than done as the delegations to the two bodies are coming from different ministries within each country and the internal coordination is not always very good…
Also, many international organizations belonging to the UN system are members of GEO and are very actively involved in the GEOSS process, such as the World Meteorological Organisation, the International Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO, the United Nations Environment Program. The UN OOSA is also a member of GEO.

C/ Links with Earth Observation

Future steps for GMES in Europe and under GEOSS

(Note: Brachet´s views here are not linked to the COPUOS discussions since COPUOS is not involved at all in GMES).

As stated in section A, I believe that GMES, after a rather slow start, is now on the right track and that the services approach taken by the EC is the right one. I am hopeful that the budgetary aspects of GMES in the EU will find a stable solution as it is clear that the GMES services cannot take off only on the basis of Research (FP7) funds, with 50% funding from Industry. After all, DG Tren had found a solution for a sustainable funding for the Galileo concession during the initial 2007-2013 period, I don’t see why DG Enterprise, maybe with the help of DG Agri., DG Env., DG Development and other DGs involved, could not convince the Council to do the same for the GMES services.
Also, Europe is in the forefront of international negotiations on global warming and biodiversity issues. GMES could become one of its principal tools for monitoring compliance with future treaties and conventions relating to environment protection and sustainable development. Therefore, the political visibility of GMES should be much higher than it is presently.
Do not forget also that GMES has an “S” at the end, which is supposed to mean that security issues are to be addressed by this programme. It is rather delicate in the European context because of institutional reluctance from Member States to see the EC dwelling in security matters, but I have observed that the situation is slowly evolving in a positive fashion.

GMES is also one of the main European contributions to GEOSS, together with large environment related research projects managed from DG Research and environment standards defined and monitored from DG Environment and the European Environment Agency (EEA). It would be good if the European Commission could set up an internal Steering Committee on GEOSS to facilitate coordination and consistency between all these entities. This would increase the European influence on GEOSS planning and implementation.

Lessons learnt from EO in the past years

In the past years, we have learnt that EO is an indispensable tool because it alone provides the global, near permanent view, on what is going on in our planet, but we have also learnt that EO from space cannot do everything, that some parameters are not accessible by remote measurements. As a consequence, a combination of “in situ” measurements and remotely collected observations is often essential to produce the right data sets that are needed to understand the physics and chemistry of the environment processes. Our friends from the Met offices and from Eumetsat know this very well, but I sometimes wonder if some space agencies have fully understood it.
Of course, we have learnt many other lessons, for example the need for EO experts to forget their technical “jargon” when they speak to the users in various application areas. I remember what I used to tell my sales staff at Spot Image in the 80s: “Forget about the satellite, forget about remote sensing, what our customers need is geo-referenced information of direct relevance to their process, provided in a format they can easily understand. We will have successfully developed the market when you will no longer need to mention where the data is coming from.”
This is where the successful EO service companies play a major role: they know their customers and their requirements and act as brokers between the raw data providers (space operators as well as in situ observation networks) and the end users.

Planning and budgeting process of EO programmes

I am not sure I want to comment on planning and budgeting of EO programmes in Europe.
I will only say that ESA has to realize that it is not alone in Europe. It would be better off if it recognized the efforts made by many of its member states and by European industry to develop and operate EO space systems. It could play more of a coordinating role instead of focusing only on its own projects, but I guess that it is too late to hope that ESA changes its behaviour.
Obviously, industry is now able to come up with its own solutions for the deployment of EO systems and will do so more frequently.

A success that has influenced the budget lines in the space industry?

I am not sure I get your question right. I will assume you mean a success that has influenced the revenue lines.
In my view, a major success has been the application of satellite imagery to agriculture in the EU, thanks in large part to the efforts of the European Commission (DG Agri and the JRC) and of service companies in the 1980s and 1990s. Both agriculture statistics at the European level and monitoring of the application of the CAP within each member states have benefited immensely from this technology. The total revenues generated by this application may not be extremely high, but they are significant. I believe the Farmstar programme initiated by Astrium is a good indicator of its present size and growth potential.
The other major success in Europe is the series of operational meteorological satellites managed by Eumetsat with technical assistance from ESA. It is so far the only case in the civilian world where the user community in Europe has gotten organized to fund the continuity of the operational observation satellites that it requires. It took place in the eighties and is a complete success. I believe this is an interesting lesson.

D/ Dialogue with the EO industry: cooperation and partnership

Here again, here I am not speaking as chairman of COPUOS but more as an observer of the EO industry over the last thirty years.

Private companies initiatives

As I said earlier, European industry is today capable of coming up with its own solutions for EO systems, although it is still a bit shy when taking the investment risk. Governments and the EC should take measures to encourage this evolution, for example by acting as a preferred customer, in a similar fashion to what the UK MoD did for the Skynet satellite telecom system.
It is true that the disaster that has become the Galileo concession process does not help. It could have been avoided if the EC had understood fully the challenges of the Galileo programme. As long as the bureaucrats, whether in the EC or in national governments, do not understand the specific risks associated with space ventures and want to treat them as ordinary infrastructure projects, the private space enterprises will have a hard time taking off.

Government agencies supporting private development

Government agencies should encourage private initiatives in deploying EO systems.
They can do it in many ways:
-Firstly, by supporting industry in basic Research & Technology and funding the development of very advanced experimental EO systems (satellites and payloads),
-Secondly, by encouraging public-private partnerships when the market potential is sufficiently established,
-Thirdly, by making sure that the legal and financial landscape is favourable: in many cases, issues such as government oversight (e.g. “shutter control”, etc.) and third party liabilities of the operator are too murky for the financial circles to give the green light. I believe that ESA , the EC and national space agencies must pay more attention to this problem.

Interaction with EO value-added industry

First of all, I do not like the expression “value-added industry”. Let us speak instead of the EO service industry. The service companies produce the information required by their customers, whether central or local governments, large or small private companies, whether on their domestic markets or on the export market. Very often, EO data are a small fraction of the data sets that they process. Their role is essential because they know (or are supposed to know) which EO data are needed, where to find these data, how to control their quality, and how to combine them with other data to feed the models that they use to produce the end-user information. In the GMES programme, where the services approach is adopted, the services are divided in “core services” which produce the core information in an operational mode and “downstream services”, which are closer to customer requirements. In both cases, the EO service industry in Europe has a beautiful opportunity to develop its business and expand its services outside the European market. Its ability to provide competitive services for GMES will be key to the success of the GMES programme.

E/ Future and Society

Future of EO within environment policies

Earth Observation should become more of an integral part of environment policies, at the global level, at the European and at the national level. It is not yet the case, as Earth Observation is often perceived by environment policymakers as a “technology looking for a customer”. In fact, even the teams working within the GEO need to be reminded that the overall objective of such grand schemes as GEOSS is to improve our collective environment policy-making ability, based on objective observations and on a proper understanding of what is affecting the planet and its resources. A lot more work is needed to convince decision makers that EO is an indispensable prerequisite for an intelligent policy making in environment matters.

Objectives for COPUOS in the next 10 years

I presented during the June 2007 session of COPUOS a series of proposals concerning the future role and activities of COPUOS.
Following the work done successfully the last few years to establish guidelines for Space Debris Mitigation, I believe the effort should go now towards developing some kind of “rules of the road” to maintain outer space, particularly near Earth outer space, a safe place top operate in. This is a sensitive subject because it implies that states would be ready to accept certain rules of behaviour in space even for space-based military activities.
There are many other priorities for COPUOS, such as helping GEOSS to be implemented, coordinating the various Global Satellite Navigation Systems (GNSS), assisting developing countries to take full advantage of space technology, encouraging the development within each nation of a clear and stable legal and regulatory framework for space activities, etc.

Future of Europe’s autonomy in space

Europe has full autonomy in space, thanks to its excellent industrial base and its autonomous launching capability, including its launch base infrastructure in French Guiana. The only exception to this autonomy is the area of manned space flights, where Europe is dependent on US and Russian launchers (and experience).
I do not believe Europe is ready to invest the large amounts of public money needed to become fully autonomous in manned space flights, simply because manned flights do not have any relevance to military, scientific or economic applications. The development of a European autonomous capability to fly humans in space could be justified only on political grounds, and that would require a degree of political consensus across Europe that is not foreseeable today.
Otherwise, European autonomous space capability will remain in good shape as long as governments continue to invest in R & T and in ambitious space projects, thus maintaining European industry at the world level. I believe this will be the case in the foreseeable future.

Lessons learnt from outside Europe

I have stated many times “Europe must be capable of defining its own vision and ambitions in space”. Looking at what China is doing today, at the Indian experience, event at the recent evolution of thinking in Japan, it is clear that a striving space programme takes place only within countries (or group of countries such as the EU) which have the necessary independence to think for themselves, to develop their own vision for space, whether it is for strategic, for economic or for scientific reasons. Europe should study carefully the reasons for the relatively large investments in space programmes by countries like China and by India. I am afraid the collective thinking in Europe is much too cautious and does not recognize the strategic and economic value of space systems. The Galileo decision was the exception, it is too bad its implementation has been so poorly managed.
In conclusion, the famous European Space Policy, still in its infancy, should set much more ambitious objectives than is presently the case. However, let us not be overly pessimistic, things are moving, slowly, in the right direction.

EO development for the citizen

Space technology has applications in the “public good” area as well as in the commercial applications.
Global navigation, meteorological observations, global change and climate research are good examples of public good applications.
Even in the commercial sector, the development of space-based telecommunications, direct to home broadcasting, worldwide mobile telecommunications have a strong impact on the citizen’s daily life and contribute to economic development everywhere, maybe more so in developing countries because they are less costly to deploy and maintain than ground-based telecom infrastructures.
Space-based Earth observation techniques will continue to develop to provide similar benefits to the citizen, be it on a “no exchange of funds” basis or for a fee, because it can provide useful information on a competitive fashion and is unique in its global reach.

Volunteers to help COPUOS?

I have received many calls from persons willing to assist and have had discussions with many space oriented colleagues who were interested in helping COPUOS. Many times, these were students of law or professional lawyers specializing in space law, while I am not a lawyer myself.
I don’t think we need more lawyers, but I believe strongly that we need more people able to explain the benefits of space technology in simple terms, accessible to the layman, and not requiring any technical background. We need good communicators who can help bridge the gap between the space community and the rest of mankind!