Astrium Poised To Partner with MDA Corp. on Earth Observation

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WASHINGTON — Astrium Services expects to strike a strategic partnership on radar Earth observation satellites by June with Canada’s MDA Corp. under which MDA would build a ground segment to be interoperable with Canada’s future RCM C-band and Germany’s future TerraSAR-X 2 X-band radar Earth observation satellites, Astrium Services Chief Executive Evert Dudok said March 21.

The dual-feed ground network would transform separate national projects into a de facto constellation, making it easier for Astrium to justify the purchase of TerraSAR-X 2, Dudok said.

Unlike Canada’s RCM, which is being 100 percent financed by the Canadian government, the German government expects Astrium to finance most of the cost of a second-generation TerraSAR-X satellite. RCM is a three-satellite constellation for military, civil government and commercial use.

Germany’s TerraSAR-X was launched in 2007 with a five-year service life. It has been operating with the follow-on TanDEM-X satellite — both built with financing from Astrium and from the German space agency, DLR — to compile a global digital elevation model that should be completed late this year.

Dudok said the resulting WorldDEM product is almost certain to be a hit with those customers approved by the German government. Dudok said the restrictions are likely to be the usual bans on selling the product to nations that are out of favor with Germany and its allies in the NATO alliance.

Revenue from TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X has been lower than expected. Astrium Services, which paid about 300 million euros ($400 million) to build and launch its Spot 6 and future Spot 7 optical Earth observation satellites, has hesitated before building a TerraSAR-X replacement.

Dudok said a decision on the new satellite will come in June as part of the emerging arrangement between Astrium Services and MDA on the one hand, and the German and Canadian governments on the other.

“It is this kind of cooperation that will help us close the business case for TerraSAR-X 2,” Dudok told reporters here on the margins of the Satellite 2013 conference. He said DLR may contribute to the financing, but will be assuming no more than a minority role to sponsor new technologies to be used with TerraSAR-X 2.

Astrium Services’ sister company, Astrium Satellites — Dudok headed that division before trading jobs with Eric Beranger — is competing for the contract to build Germany’s second-generation SAR-Lupe military radar satellite constellation. While the contract is separate from any TerraSAR-X 2 work, Dudok said a late-2013 contract for the SAR-Lupe work would enable Astrium to reduce the cost of both programs.

OHB AG of Bremen, Germany, which is prime contractor for the current five-satellite SAR-Lupe constellation, will be competing for the replacement constellation as well.

Astrium Services will also be commercializing imagery from Spain’s dual-use Paz radar satellite, which is scheduled for launch late this year.

Depending on the SAR-Lupe and TerraSAR-X 2 decisions, Dudok said, Canada and Germany might usefully cooperate on securing launch services.

In bidding for the RCM work, Richmond, British Columbia-based MDA proposed to launch all three RCM satellites aboard a single Falcon 9 rocket operated by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif.

It is unclear whether the Canadian government ultimately will not want to reduce the RCM program’s risk by diversifying the launch program over two or three rockets. Dudok said this would be easier if the German and Canadian programs worked together to secure a launch contract.

Astrium Services’ Earth observation business, optical and radar, generated a combined revenue of 195 million euros in 2012.

Dudok said the combination of U.S. optical Earth observation providers DigitalGlobe and GeoEye, which was completed earlier this year, is on balance good news for Astrium Services.

“We are the only alternative to DigitalGlobe now,” Dudok said. “We have a very powerful competitor, one that is better financed than we are and has access to higher-resolution optical satellites. But we have more capacity in less-high resolution, and if a customer wants a competitor to DigitalGlobe, they have one in us.”