Europe meets to set space goals

By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News, The Hague

Attaching Columbus to the space station was a key moment for Europe

How to spend at least 9bn euros is the question facing European science ministers gathering in The Hague.
The 18 member states of the European Space Agency (Esa) are meeting in the Dutch city to approve policies and programmes for the next three years.
They will sanction funding for ongoing activities, such as Esa's involvement in the space station; but they will also initiate a range of new projects.
These include new Earth-monitoring satellites and experimental spacecraft.
The agenda of the Council Meeting at Ministerial Level was drawn up in advance of the talks. Science ministers will approve Esa's plans and place budget limits on the major programme areas.
The membership rules of the Esa "club" stipulate that nations must pick up a large chunk of the annual 3bn-euro budget according to their economic weight. This money covers the main science activities of the agency.
But there is also an "a la carte" menu of space programmes on offer at the meeting and member states can choose the level at which they enrol in these projects.
The excitement of the ministerial meeting is always to see which nations are drawn to which optional programmes, and how much they are prepared to invest.
Germany and France, for example, are the biggest backers of the most expensive voluntary programmes - the ones that cover the space station and Europe's Ariane rocket project.
The UK, on the other hand, walks away from these ventures. In The Hague, its attention will be focused on other items such as ExoMars robot rover that Esa hopes to send to the Red Planet in 2016.
Britain has put its financial muscle behind the mission but in the three years since ministers initiated the project, it has grown in scope and cost. The Hague meeting must sign off this "enhanced ExoMars", and that means the UK having to renegotiate its position.
Esa is as much about industry as it is science; and under agency rules, there is a direct relationship between the amount of money a nation puts into Esa and the value of the industrial contracts it gets back. The bigger the investment, the bigger the industrial return.