PARIS — The European Space Agency () has agreed to sell its aging Artemis data-relay satellite and all future rights to the satellite’s 21.5 degrees east orbital slot to Avanti Communications of Britain.
It is the first such transaction in the agency’s history, ESA officials said.
London-based Avanti, which is struggling to start a Ka-band broadband business to consumers, governments and businesses in Europe, the Middle East and Africa and has two satellites in orbit, said the transaction would be concluded for “a nominal sum,” without going into details.
In late 2012, the 20-nation agency had said it would be moving Artemis into a retirement orbit and decommissioning the satellite in 2014.
In a written response to SpaceNews inquiries, ESA did not dispute Avanti’s suggestion that the sale price would be modest, if not symbolic. The agency has estimated that Artemis, launched in 2001, has three years of service life left in it, and its ESA mission has been completed.
Avanti did not respond to requests for comment on its plans for Artemis beyond saying that the satellite “occupies an orbital position at 21.5 degrees east and gives the company access to new opportunities.”
Following a decision of its ruling council the week of Oct. 14 that approved the satellite’s sale, ESA is negotiating the final terms of the transaction with Avanti. ESA said the deal should close by the end of the year.
The agency, headquartered in Paris, will be transferring regulatory rights and responsibilities for Artemis, and the orbital slot, to British frequency regulators.
Once the transaction has closed, ESA will transfer satellite operations to Avanti or to an operator hired by Avanti. In the past Avanti has used the resources of fellow London fleet operator.
Under the terms of the contract, ESA will be granted rights to use Artemis to help track the scheduled mid-2014 launch of ESA’s fifth and final Automated Transfer Vehicle unmanned cargo carrier to the international space station. ESA’s statement said there are no other missions for which the agency needs Artemis.
Artemis’ principal role at ESA was as a technology demonstrator, especially of data-relay services using laser optical links. It demonstrated inter-satellite communications, with Artemis receiving data from an Earth observation satellite; as well as laser links between aircraft and a satellite in geostationary orbit.
Artemis also carries an L-band communications terminal to provide positioning, navigation and timing data to back up the U.S. GPS constellation in medium Earth orbit, and to validate GPS signals.
The navigation mission, performed by ESA for the European Union’s executive commission, has been succeeded by the commission’s more recent contracts to base GPS overlay services aboard two commercial satellites operated byof Luxembourg.
Avanti and ESA have well-developed relations. Avanti’s first satellite, Hylas-1, was partly financed by ESA as part of the agency’s work, with prime contractor Astrium Satellites, on flexible payloads. Hylas-1 entered service at 33.5 degrees east in April 2011.
Avanti’s Hylas-2, built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., and financed in part by a loan from the U.S. Export-Import Bank and the French export-credit agency, Coface, entered service in October 2012 at 31 degrees east.
Hylas-3, tentatively set for launch in 2015, is an ESA satellite called EDRS-C that will carry an Avanti Ka-band payload for commercial use. The satellite, to be stationed at Avanti’s 31 degrees east orbital slot, will be used by Astrium Services, under ESA contract, to provide commercial data-relay services between low-orbiting Earth observation satellites and manned and unmanned aircraft, and users of these platforms’ data.
Providing the orbital slot for an ESA satellite permitted Avanti to save a substantial amount of money against what it would have spent on a Hylas-3 without ESA involvement.
In its annual report for the year ending June 30, Avanti said it fell short of its revenue forecast in part because Hylas-2 was several months late in being launched, and in part because Avanti customers were not prepared to use the spacecraft.
The company’s effort to complete in-orbit testing as quickly as possible “was not matched by the logistical and technical readiness of some of our customers,” Avanti said in its annual report. “Therefore, we allowed several customers to defer the start dates of their commitments, which resulted in a delay in revenue generation.”
Avanti said it nonetheless became cash-flow positive, for the first time, as of June and expects “to generate strong positive cash flow from operations this year,” meaning the year ending June 30, 2014.
The company said that for the 12 months ending last June 30, revenue totaled 20.6 million British pounds ($31.3 million), up 65 percent from the previous year. But higher costs of operations resulted in an operating loss of 33.7 million British pounds — double the losses of the previous year.
Avanti said that as of June 30 it had 290 million pounds in firm backlog, of which 42 million pounds would be booked as revenue for the current fiscal year.
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