Airbus Negotiating SpaceX Launch for ESA-supported Laser Relay Satellite

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PARIS — Airbus Defence and Space is negotiating with SpaceX for a late-2016 launch of the European Space Agency’s European Data Relay System (EDRS) program’s second geostationary-orbit satellite designed to commercialize laser communications links worldwide.

The satellite, called EDRS-C, would be the second geostationary-orbit laser communications node for the commercial EDRS service, the first being a laser terminal fitted onto Eutelsat’s Eutelsat 9B commercial telecommunications satellite. Eutelsat 9B, whose laser communications payload is called EDRS-A, is scheduled for launch in early 2015 aboard a Russian Proton rocket.

The EDRS program is valued at slightly more than 500 million euros ($625 million). The 20-nation ESA, led by Germany, is financing nearly 75 percent of this amount, which includes the construction and pro rata shares of the launch of the two payloads, plus ESA’s share of placing similar laser terminals aboard Europe’s Sentinel 1 and Sentinel 2 satellites.

Commercial satellite fleet operator Avanti Communications of London has invested 74 million British pounds ($119 million) in the EDRS-C satellite for the right to place a commercial telecommunications payload on it.

Between that and 130 million euros ($163 million) being invested by Airbus, the private sector is paying $282 million to offset ESA’s EDRS charges. Airbus has contracted with OHB AG of Bremen, Germany, to build the EDRS-C satellite. It will use OHB’s SmallGeo platform, whose development was financed by ESA with substantial German backing.

Tesat Spacecom of Backnang, Germany — wholly owned by Airbus — is providing the laser communications terminals for all the EDRS-equipped satellites.

Airbus’ decision to negotiate with Hawthorne, California-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, for a Falcon 9 launch of EDRS-C comes on the eve of a meeting of ESA governments that, among other subjects, will attempt to force a consensus among members to use Arianespace and the future Ariane 6 rocket — to be in service in 2020 — for all their launches.

In that context, the choice of SpaceX may appear to run counter to the emerging European policy. But EDRS is one of several ESA programs that employ a public-private partnership model that obliges the private sector to take its own risks to commercialize ESA-developed technologies.

In the case of laser communications, it has mainly been the German Aerospace Center, DLR, that has financed Tesat’s laser communications terminal development. Germany has been less enthusiastic than some ESA members, notably France, about obliging governments to contract with Evry, France-based Arianespace for all their launches.

Germany’s second-generation radar reconnaissance satellite constellation, SARah, is being launched aboard two SpaceX rockets as part of a public-private partnership between the German government and OHB under which OHB assumes responsibility for satellite construction, launch and operations.

EDRS, like SARah, illustrates how the border between government and commercial programs has blurred when the private sector is asked to step in and turn a research and development effort into a moneymaking venture.

One industry official said that for symbolic reasons alone ESA may decide to intervene in the launcher selection by giving Airbus a financial incentive to choose Europe’s heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket for EDRS-C.

The French government stepped in with a similar incentive to Paris-based Eutelsat this year when Eutelsat was mulling a SpaceX launch for its Eutelsat 172B satellite, which carries new onboard satellite technology developed with French government support.

Eutelsat said that when the French government support was combined with an effort made by Arianespace to reduce prices for lower-weight satellites riding in the Ariane 5 rocket’s lower berth — Eutelsat 172B fits that bill — the net launch cost to Eutelsat was only marginally more than a SpaceX launch would have been.

Magali Vaissiere, director of telecommunications at ESA, said Dec. 2 that under the EDRS contract with Airbus, it is Airbus that selects the launch service provider, not ESA.

For EDRS, Airbus, ESA and the executive commission of the 28-nation European Union on Nov. 27 celebrated the successful laser communications link between the AlphaSat satellite in geostationary orbit and the Sentinel 1A Earth observation satellite in low Earth orbit.

Evert Dudok, head of Airbus Defence and Space’s Communications, Intelligence and Security division, said that as of Nov. 27 about 14 such links had been successfully demonstrated. 

Another 20 or so are needed to complete the validation phase of EDRS, Dudok said. At that point, Airbus, ESA and the European Commission will sign a service-level agreement on the provision of EDRS service with the two government organizations. Dudok said the service-level agreement is likely to be signed within a couple of weeks.

“What has been demonstrated so far gives us a very high confidence that the remaining links will be made successfully,” Dudok said.

Dudok said Airbus is counting on Germany and other ESA governments to complement the current EDRS program with a third node in geostationary orbit, this one over the Western Pacific Ocean, to give the program a global reach.

A key future EDRS market is the U.S. Defense Department and its fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles, which produce volumes of streamed video data that could be sent more quickly via laser link than by the radio frequencies — Ku-band today, Ka-band tomorrow — currently available.

The Tesat-built laser communications terminal on the Sentinel 1A satellite is capable of sending data at a speed of 1.8 gigabits per second. The demonstration test on Nov. 27 reached a speed of 600 megabits per second.