OHB, Astrium To Share Work on German Radar Satellites

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LE BOURGET, France — The German parliament is scheduled to meet the week of June 24 to approve a billion-dollar second-generation radar reconnaissance satellite system, with spacecraft to be provided by both of Germany’s satellite prime contractors and launches by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), industry officials said.

Having waged fierce battles for German and European government contracts in the past, OHB AG of Bremen and Astrium GmbH of Munich have agreed to divide responsibility for the three-satellite SARah constellation, which will replace the current OHB-built five-satellite SAR-Lupe constellation starting around 2017.

The Budget and Defense committees of the German parliament, or Bundestag, must still review the SARah contract before it is signed, but the OHB-led consortium looks all but certain to be awarded the business by the German defense procurement agency this summer. OHB will build two passive-antenna synthetic aperture radar, or SAR, satellites, and Astrium Satellites of Germany will build a larger, phased-array-antenna satellite under contract to OHB.

For Astrium, any pain in playing second fiddle to OHB again is offset by the commercial dividend in the SARah work: Building the satellite will allow Astrium to perform, under government contract, the nonrecurring engineering work it needs for its own second-generation commercial radar satellite system, improving the business case for the project.

The German Aerospace Center, DLR, shared investment with Astrium in the TerraSAR-X satellite, launched in 2007, and its twin TanDEM-X, launched in 2010. But DLR has said it is not in the business of financing recurrent satellites and has resisted joining Astrium in the second-generation system, called TerraSAR-X 2.

With the SARah contract now doing the development heavy lifting, Astrium is almost certain to build TerraSAR-X 2, whose business prospects have improved further with a recent partnership agreement between Astrium and Canada’s MDA Corp.

Richmond, British Columbia-based MDA is prime contractor for Canada’s Radarsat satellites and the future three-satellite Radarsat Constellation Mission (RCM), both funded by the Canadian government. Building a common ground segment for the German and Canadian systems will improve the market potential for the two partners, Astrium Satellites Chief Executive Evert Dudok said here June 20. The RCM satellites will operate in C-band, while TerraSAR-X 2, like its predecessors, will operate in X-band.

MDA spokeswoman Wendy Keyser said June 20 the company declined to comment on its partnership with Astrium.

The Canadian and German radar satellite missions are both expected to launch on Falcon 9 rockets operated by SpaceX. 

Falcon 9, whose book-to-bill ratio is taking on astonishing proportions, is the preferred launcher for all three SARah radar satellites under an agreement that makes use of long-dormant options held by Astrium for SpaceX’s now-shelved Falcon 1 rocket, industry officials said.

Officials said Astrium’s Falcon 1 launch contract options, agreed to in 2010, have been transferred to Falcon 9 and that these will be used to launch the three SARah radar reconnaissance satellites.

The two OHB-built satellites would be launched together on a single Falcon 9, with the heavier Astrium-built spacecraft flying on a separate Falcon 9 vehicle with a co-passenger, officials said. They said a backup launcher would be selected in the event Falcon 9, whose current model is being phased out in favor of an upgraded version scheduled to debut this year, is unavailable.

Germany’s five SAR-Lupe radar reconnaissance spacecraft were launched aboard Russia’s Cosmos rocket between 2006 and 2008 in contracts negotiated by OHB.

The estimated SARah budget is 800 million euros ($1.05 billion), including the construction and launch of the three satellites, a dedicated ground infrastructure and 10 years of operations, industry officials said.

TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X, meanwhile, have been flying at several hundred meters’ distance to assemble a digital elevation model of Earth’s land surface. The resulting Astrium product, called WorldDEM, is scheduled for release by early 2014 pending German government guidelines on its sale.

Dudok said WorldDEM will offer global three-dimensional coverage with 12-meter grids and a vertical accuracy of 2 meters. Astrium believes it will find customers in the United States and Europe as soon as it is available.

Astrium Services also owns the Spot 6 optical Earth observation satellite, already in orbit, and its twin Spot 7, to be launched late this year aboard an Indian PSLV rocket.

The company has access to the French government-owned Pleiades high-resolution optical satellites and has some 200 optical Earth observation partners around the world with receiving stations to take down Spot imagery directly.