Airbus Signs $1.7 Billion Contract for Six Metop Weather Satellites

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PARIS — Airbus Defense and Space on Oct. 16 signed a $1.7 billion contract to build six polar-orbiting meteorological satellites for European governments, a deal in which guaranteeing strict work-share equality between Germany and France was almost as important as the satellite technology involved.

For Airbus, the contract for the Metop Second Generation satellites was a kind of revenge match against the same Thales Alenia Space-OHB AG team that had bested Airbus for Europe’s third-generation Meteosat geostationary-orbiting satellites.

Airbus and Germany protested putting Thales Alenia Space of France rather than Germany’s OHB in charge of managing the Meteosat contract, and the German government dragged its heels for months before accepting the European Space Agency’s decision.

To avoid a replay of that, France and Germany in 2012 agreed that each would take a 27 percent stake in the Metop Second Generation contract, and that whoever won would divide the work evenly between the two nations, with the other participating nations — Britain, Italy, Spain and Sweden — taking lesser roles.

The fact that the Metop contract was for two different payloads, with sounding and imaging instruments, made it easier to split the program down the middle to let the German and French teams each build three satellites.

Accomplishing this task would always be easier for Airbus, which maintains large satellite production facilities in both nations and, as an integrated company, can fine-tune work assignments.

As described by ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain during the contract signing ceremony, Airbus and ESA have carved out a program that is about as evenly distributed as possible.

For the 1.3168 billion euros ($1.71 billion) in firm, fixed-price contract value, Dordain said, Germany will get 658.6 million euros in work share, and France will get 658.2 million euros. “Germany wins,” he said. “But not by much.”

“It’s nice to see good cooperation between France and Germany without having to go through another big political dispute as we did” for the Meteosat satellites, ESA Earth Observation Director Volker Liebig said during the contract-signing ceremony.

Europe’s meteorological satellite organization, the 30-nation Eumetsat of Darmstadt, Germany, is responsible for operating the satellites and for financing most of their construction and all of their launches.

The 20-nation ESA, as design overseer, pays a 70 percent share of the first two satellites’ construction. ESA has also paid for the early phase design work, bringing its total Metop Second Generation contribution to some 808 million euros.

Eumetsat expects to spend some 3.2 billion euros for its share of the first satellite models, the construction of the remaining four, the launch of all six satellites, the ground infrastructure and 20 years of operations starting in 2020.

The Metop satellites will gradually take over from the current Metop spacecraft, whose orbits are coordinated with similar satellites operated by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to provide morning and afternoon passes over the equator.

Eumetsat Director-General Alain Ratier said China, which now duplicates part of what NOAA does, appears ready to shift the orbit of its next-generation polar meteorological satellites to offer a more-efficient use of the three systems.

Francois Auque, director of space systems at Airbus, said all six satellites will use variations of the company’s AstroBus platform, which stretches from several hundred kilograms in launch mass for simpler optical Earth imaging satellites to the 4,000-kilogram range for the Metop Second Generation spacecraft.

ESA and Eumetsat had agreed to postpone the final contract award to give time to industry to design the Metop Second Generation satellites with enough fuel to assure their controlled atmospheric re-entry over the South Pacific.

Each satellite will carry more than 600 kilograms of fuel, two-thirds of which will be reserved to perform the deorbit maneuver at the end of their 7.5-year mission life. The deorbit is needed to remove the spacecraft from their 831-kilometer polar low Earth orbit, a heavily trafficked orbital region, to eliminate their risk as space debris.

Dordain and Ratier said the 30-year cooperation between ESA and Eumetsat, in which neither seeks to usurp the other’s role, is one reason Europe’s meteorological satellite program is rarely controversial, even when European governments are facing tight budgets. For the Metop Second Generation program, ESA governments actually oversubscribed, forcing the agency to reduce some nations’ roles.