PARIS — The European Space Agency’s check-writing body on April 10 endorsed the recommendation of the agency’s technology evaluation board to select Airbus Defence and Space to build two to six polar-orbiting meteorological satellites developed by ESA and Europe’s meteorological satellite agency, Eumetsat, European government and industry officials said.

Meeting at the agency’s headquarters here, ESA’s Industrial Policy Committee approved spending 820 million euros ($1.1 billion) to develop the first pair of Metop Second Generation (SG) satellites, for a launch early in the next decade.

Darmstadt, Germany-based Eumetsat is expected to confirm late this year whether its member governments are willing to purchase two pairs of Metop SG satellites. Eumetsat has concluded that ordering three pairs is much more cost effective, on a per-year basis, than ordering two pairs and then having to restart a new program.

Whether that argument will hold for European nations, some of which are facing immediate cash-flow issues, is unclear.

If past procurements are any guide, ESA and Eumetsat likely will be able to negotiate recurrent models of Metop SG with Airbus that, on a per-satellite basis, are 50 percent less costly than the first two.

ESA and Eumetsat are reprising their traditional roles in Metop SG in which ESA pays for most of the cost of the initial satellites, and Eumetsat finances a minority share of the first models and then pays 100 percent of the follow-on satellites in addition to all the launches and operating charges.

Eumetsat and ESA have said the total Metop SG program — which Eumetsat calls the European Polar System Second Generation — will cost slightly more than 4 billion euros including two decades of operations and the ground network.

The ESA decision to award the contract to Airbus, which was in competition with a team of Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy an OHB AG of Germany, is subject to the usual conditions that the ceiling-cost conditions of the Airbus bid are respected when it comes time to sign the final contract documents.

Key to the Airbus win was its ability to distribute equal shares of the Metop SG work in France and Germany — a relatively easy matter for the company, which has major satellite production facilities in both those countries, and in Britain.

The Metop SG contract, as proposed by Airbus and accepted by ESA, will have one satellite built in France and the other in Germany. Work on different instruments will occur at the company’s British and Spanish facilities.

Each Metop SG satellite is expected to weigh around 3,900 kilograms at launch and to operate for nine years or more in an 830-kilometer polar low Earth orbit.

ESA officials had said before the award that they wanted the winning contractor to design the satellites to leave sufficient fuel at the end of their intended service lives to be actively deorbited so that any pieces that survived atmospheric re-entry would fall on uninhabited areas, such as the southern Pacific Ocean.

ESA officials said the satellites will carry about 600 kilograms of fuel to accomplish this task. About 200 kilograms of the fuel is for their normal operations, including possible collision-avoidance maneuvers, safe-mode operations and orbital adjustments. 

Another 200 kilograms would be needed if ESA elected not to force atmospheric re-entry but rather to lower the satellites’ orbit at the end of their operational lives so that atmospheric drag pulled them out of orbit within 25 years. This is one of the guidelines established by international organizations dealing with orbital debris.

In addition to increasing the fuel complement, accomplishing the deorbit task means providing more thrust on board the satellites than would be needed otherwise, and strengthening certain subsystem structures so that the satellite does not break apart before being guided to the intended re-entry trajectory.

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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.