PARIS — Managers of Europe’s Copernicus program of satellite-based Earth observation have been able to use firm, fixed-price contracts with industry to limit the damage from cost overruns associated with program delays, European government officials said Nov. 22.
As a result, while, Astrium Satellites and the dozens of other companies building Copernicus’ Sentinel satellites may have seen their profit margins narrow, the cost to the 20-nation European Space Agency ( ) is only 2.75 percent above the budget set seven years ago.
Guido Levrini, ESA’s Copernicus space segment program manager, said current estimates are that ESA will be paying 2.56 billion euros ($3.5 billion) to build the first seven Sentinel satellites and to launch three of them.
The executive commission of the 28-nation European Union has taken ownership of Copernicus and is paying for it through the commission’s seven-year budget, which has dedicated 3.4 billion euros to Copernicus. That is 41 percent less than what ESA had said was needed to pay for the system’s orbital and ground architecture, and to develop Copernicus-related services.
ESA, which has spent about 2 billion euros of is own resources on Copernicus, is now under contract to the commission to continue its role as technical program manager.
The commission’s budget for the program is so tight that some launches have been delayed beyond the current seven-year budget cycle in the hope that the preceding satellites will outlive their scheduled service lives, leaving no gap between them and their successors.
Copernicus is already more than a year late. The first Copernicus satellite, Sentinel-1A, is in final integration at Thales Alenia Space’s production facility here and is scheduled to be moved to the company’s Cannes, France, site for final testing before being sent to Europe’s South American spaceport in February. Current plans call for a launch in April or May aboard a Europeanized Russian Soyuz rocket.
Copernicus users had hoped Sentinel-1A, which carries a synthetic aperture radar sensor, would be launched before ESA’s large Envisat radar satellite was retired. That would have required a launch in 2012, when Envisat — which was well past its expected operational life — suddenly stopped functioning.
European governments have been purchasing commercial radar data in the interim while waiting for Sentinel 1A’s launch.
Massimo Di Lazzaro, executive vice president of Earth observation, exploration and navigation at Thales Alenia Space, said during a Sentinel-1A briefing here that the satellite’s development was slowed by two exceptional events: an earthquake near his company’s satellite component manufacturing center in L’Aquila, Italy, where the Sentinel-1A radar antenna’s transmit/receive modules were built; and a fire at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute, which under contract to Astrium Satellites was preparing the Sentinel-1A antenna.
Levrini said that despite these events, Sentinel-1A was on track for a late-2013 launch when a suspected anomaly in the radar antenna of the identical Sentinel-1B satellite showed up in testing in Germany.
“I realize it is important” to reduce the gap in time between Envisat’s end and the start of Sentinel-1A, Levrini said. “But one thing we will not trade on is our record of success. We were not sure what happened to the antenna was a problem, but we took no risk. So now we have a further delay of four months.”
European Commission Vice President Antonio Tajani said the commission’s seven-year budget, which was recently approved by the European Parliament, includes money for the launch of the second models of the Sentinel-1, -2 and -3 satellites.
Copernicus backers have said they need two copies of each Sentinel in orbit to reduce the time between overflights of a given area.
Ramon Torres, ESA’s Sentinel-1 project manager, said Sentinel-1A’s radar collects an image of the entire planet every 12 days. With Sentinel-1B, the revisit time is cut in half, to six days. For the territory of the European Union and its territorial waters, he said, a single Sentinel-1A would complete a survey every 3.7 days. With two satellites, it is every 1.9 days.
Sentinel-1A carries a laser communications terminal built by Tesat Spacecom of Germany for the European data-relay service to speed users’ reception of Earth observation data from low-orbiting Earth observation satellites. The data is sent through optical communications links to corresponding terminals on satellites in geostationary orbit.
Follow Peter on Twitter: @pbdes