ESA Members Defer Funding Guarantee for Airbus-backed Data-relay System

by

PARIS — European Space Agency governments, in a surprise setback, failed to approve a funding guarantee for the European Data Relay System (EDRS) during a late-August meeting, leaving the program in limbo until a fresh attempt set for Sept. 17, government and industry officials said.

ESA officials declined Sept. 5 to discuss the effort beyond confirming that the “extra delay is until mid-September … [and] is required for ESA and some member states to set up the framework proposed.”

EDRS is ESA’s most ambitious public-private partnership insofar as it is attempting to create, with Airbus Defence and Space as the industrial program manager, a market that does not yet exist in relaying Earth observation satellite data to satellites in higher, geostationary orbit via laser-optical links to speed their reception by ground users.

ESA agreed to spend 275 million euros ($360 million) on EDRS, with Airbus committing ultimately to spend “far more than 100 million euros” to commercialize the system, according to Evert Dudok, the company’s executive vice president for communications, information and security.

Airbus has contracted with satellite fleet operator Eutelsat to place an EDRS laser communications terminal on the Airbus-built Eutelsat 9B telecommunications satellite as a hosted payload. The satellite’s launch has been delayed by the Russian Proton rocket’s May failure and is now tentatively scheduled for launch by mid-2015.

A second terminal will be placed on a geostationary satellite under construction, for ESA, by OHB AG of Bremen, Germany. Commercial satellite fleet operator Avanti Communications agreed to put its own telecommunications payload onboard and to share development and launch costs with ESA.

An EDRS terminal has also been placed on the Sentinel 1A Earth observation satellite, launched in April. Sentinel 1A will be used to test the EDRS business case by sending imagery to a laser terminal aboard Europe’s Alphasat satellite in geostationary orbit.

Alphasat is operated by mobile satellite services provider Inmarsat of London but in addition to Inmarsat’s commercial L-band payload carries several technology demonstration payloads, including the laser communications terminal.

ESA and Airbus officials expect that once EDRS has proved itself with the Sentinel 1A-Alphasat demonstration, the program’s major technological risk will have been removed and Airbus will be confident enough in the system to invest its own money.

EDRS is also counting on a services agreement between the 20-nation ESA and the European Commission, which owns the Copernicus program and is responsible for its operations. The commission will be the anchor customer for EDRS.

Sentinel 1A was months late to launch and is not expected to complete its proof-of-concept campaign with Alphasat until the end of the year. In addition, ESA and the European Commission have yet to formalize a service agreement for Copernicus, depriving EDRS of is crucial early customer. The agreement is expected by the end of the year as well.

For Airbus, the problem is that the EDRS financing it received from ESA ran out in July.

In a Sept. 5 interview, Dudok said Airbus is asking that ESA guarantee that in the event the Sentinel 1A-Alphasat links do not work as forecast by the end of the year, or that the ESA-European Commission agreement is not finalized by then, ESA reimburse the company its 20 million euros in spending expected between July and the end of the year.

“It is not additional cash, it is a risk provision we are asking for in the very unlikely event that the testing or the agreement with the commission are not concluded,” Dudok said.

Dudok said Airbus has been contractually within its rights to quit the program since February, when the orbital testing and ESA-European Commission agreements were to have been terminated under the original contract timetable. It has chosen to stick with it, he said, because the company believes in the EDRS potential.

“Everybody believes in this program,” Dudok said. “We were allowed to exit when the risks weren’t retired in February, but we have no interest at all in exiting. At the same time, the company has to cover its risks. We are not asking for any change in the contract’s financial terms, and we are not asking for more money from ESA.”

Johann-Dietrich Woerner, chairman of the executive committee of the German Aerospace Center, DLR, said Germany still believes in EDRS but that it will take a bit more time to set aside the necessary funds.

“EDRS will fly,” Woerner said Sept. 4, noting that Germany is financing nearly 60 percent of ESA’s share of the program. “We would like to have had a decision by Sept. 1. It now looks like it will take a little more time, to mid-September. But we are confident a resolution will be found and that Airbus will remain as the EDRS system prime.”

DLR and Europe have already tested laser links between low-orbiting satellites, including a series of links between a German radar Earth observation satellite and a spacecraft owned by the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.

Links between a geostationary satellite and a low-orbiting Earth observation satellite were conducted in 2001 and 2002 using a Spot optical observation satellite and ESA’s experimental Artemis spacecraft in geostationary orbit. Artemis used a different laser technology, however.