ESA Agrees To Manage Copernicus Satellite Program

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PARIS — The European Space Agency on Oct. 16 formally approved a convention with the European Commission that will give ESA the management authority over Europe’s Copernicus series of environment-monitoring satellites.

Under the agreement, which is formally called as a delegation agreement and is expected to be approved by the commission within two weeks, the 20-nation ESA will receive 3.148 billion euros ($4.1 billion) from the commission between 2014 and 2020 to run the Copernicus space segment.

The commission has budgeted some 4.3 billion euros during the period for the entire Copernicus program. The remaining funds will be used for the program’s ground network and to stimulate a wide range of services provided by Copernicus to European governments and to the private sector.

The delegation agreement is several months late in coming, a fact that had caused Airbus Defence and Space to ask for special cash guarantees from ESA as Airbus invests in a satellite data-relay service for which the European Commission, through Copernicus, is the anchor customer.

The data-relay program will use laser-optical terminals onboard several of Copernicus’ low-orbiting Sentinel observation satellites to speed delivery of data to users by relaying the data through satellites in higher, geostationary orbit.

With ESA’s ruling council now endorsing the delegation agreement, and the commission’s signature just weeks away, a chief Airbus concern about the financial viability of the data-relay service appears to have been resolved.

Airbus is still waiting on the second of its two concerns — a demonstration of the laser-relay system using the first Copernicus satellite, Sentinel-1A, launched earlier this year, which became operational Oct. 6.

ESA officials said Sentinel-1A should have fully demonstrated the laser-relay service through the AlphaSat satellite in geostationary orbit by sometime in November. AlphaSat has a commercial L-band mobile communications payload used by Inmarsat of London but includes several ESA-furnished technology demonstration packages, including the laser communications terminal.

Airbus had asked ESA governments to set aside an unplanned 20 million euros to reimburse Airbus in the event the laser relay did not work as planned, and in case the delegation agreement with the commission was indefinitely delayed.