What’s in a name?

24 June 2018

No-one should dispute that Europe has built a reputation for conceiving and executing ambitious space missions. To list just a few, there is of course the spectacular Rosetta comet-chasing mission; Planck, which mapped the cosmic microwave background; and Gaia, which is still at work in deep space surveying the positions and motion of a billion stars in our galaxy.

One thing all these missions share is a great name. Rosetta is hard to top. It hosted a robotic lander called Philae, named after the ancient Egyptian obelisk whose inscriptions helped decipher the Rosetta stone, and followed up comet studies by the earlier Giotto mission.

When not inspired by the classics, Europe gets modern and names its missions with catchy acronyms. Consider: SPOT, for Satellite Pour l’Observation de la Terre; Vega, which is either named after the brightest star in the sky or stands for Vettore Europeo di Generazione Avanzata (which works better in Italian than English:“Advanced generation European carrier rocket”. LISA Pathfinder was the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna.

Yet to launch are ATHENA (Advanced Telescope for High-ENergy Astrophysics, to launch in 2028), PLATO (PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars, 2024); JUICE (JUpiter ICy moons Explorer, 2022) and FLEX (FLuorescence EXplorer, to study the carbon cycle and photosynthesis, 2022).

By such stellar standards, GMES was a bit pedestrian. Twenty years ago, when Europe’s Earth observation community gathered in Baveno, on the shore of Italy’s Lake Maggiore, to sketch out the scheme that would become the world’s most comprehensive EO programme, they called it Global Monitoring for Environmental Security.

But within a year of the signing of the Baveno Manifesto, GMES had become Global Monitoring for Environment and Security. That may seem a minor adjustment, but the implications were significant – reflecting a focus on the security of both the environment and the people of Europe. Security went on to include EO to support humanitarian aid, peacekeeping operations, border surveillance and response to crises.

The European Commission this month hosted a conference at Baveno to mark the anniversary of the meeting that set GMES in motion. Jack Metthey, director for climate action and resource efficiency at the European Commission’s directorate-general for research and innovation (DG RTD), told delegates that in 2002 he made a trip to Washington DC “to present a little bit what Europe was doing. The first visit was at the Pentagon, where I met Mr. Ron Sega, a former astronaut who was assistant secretary of defence for research and engineering.

“I presented what GMES was about, and he was very surprised that the Europeans were getting their act together and also very interested. It was close after 9/11, within a year, so the American side was extremely sensitive, and the S of security was of course ringing alarm bells.”

The rest, so to speak, was history. With the Americans, Europe went on to establish a global effort to co-ordinate EO activity, which became GEOSS, the Global Earth Observation System of Systems.

And, before the first Sentinel satellites were launched, GMES was renamed Copernicus in 2012, channelling the Polish astronomer who, as the European Commission quite reasonably puts it, “revolutionised our understanding of the Earth’s dynamics”.

But for all the prescience of those followers of Copernicus who met in Baveno 20 years ago, Metthey observes that they missed one trick: “If there is one thing the group didn’t maybe get right it was this bl**dy acronym, GMES. Because as branding it turned out to be difficult to sell politically. I think moving to Copernicus was a wise decision, definitely.”