After Flirtation with SpaceX, Airbus Taps Ariane 5 for EDRS-C

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WASHINGTON – Airbus Defence and Space on March 18 contracted with Arianespace to launch the EDRS-C laser-optical data-relay satellite in early 2017, a deal that follows contract discussions with rival launch-services provider SpaceX that drew fire from the French government.

At the contract signing ceremony, Evert Dudok, head of Airbus’ Communications, Intelligence and Security division, conceded that the company faced political pressure to pick the European launch-service provider, but insisted that Airbus management had resisted it.

“Clearly the political pressure was there but our management gave us a free hand,” Dudok said. “Each party made the necessary effort to make this happen and the contract we have signed is within the original investment volume foreseen.”

EDRS constellation
EDRS constellation. Credit: ESA video grab

Dudok said Airbus is investing more than 130 mlllion euros ($145 million) in the European Data Relay Service, which in addition to EDRS-C features a laser-optical communications payload aboard a geostationary-orbiting satellite owned by Eutelsat and slated for launch this year. The EDRS payloads will be used to relay data from Earth observation spacecraft.

These Earth observation satellites for now – until Airbus expands the market – are all owned by the European Union’s Copernicus environment-monitoring program.

Dudok and Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel said the French government did not tip the scales with an investment either in Airbus or Arianespace to beat the SpaceX price.

“There was no cash from the French government,” Dudok said. “This was a purely business arrangement between Arianespace and SpaceX.”

Dudok did not directly answer the question of whether a SpaceX launch would have been less expensive than the Arianespace contract.

EDRS-C will ride in the heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket’s lower berth as the smaller of two satellites carried on most Ariane 5 missions. Dudok said, and Israel has confirmed, that Arianespace has lowered prices for its lower-berth passengers in the past year.

Dudok said the price obtained by Airbus from Arianespace was lower than it would have been a year or two ago. “We made clear we needed a market-competitive price,” Dudok said.