Credit: ESA

LE BOURGET, France — A European government-industry partnership using space-based lasers to speed data between Earth observation satellites and the ground using geostationary satellites as relay towers is facing potentially costly delays for industrial contractor Airbus Defence and Space.

Already slowed by differences between the two government sponsors — the European Space Agency and the European Commission — the European Data Relay System (EDRS) is now stalled by what may be a months-long delay in the launch of its first geostationary payload.

Airbus, which said it has invested more than 130 million euros (148 million) in securing two EDRS geostationary payloads and their launch, is basing its initial EDRS service on laser communications terminals on two geostationary satellites.

The first, called EDRS-A, is a hosted payload aboard Paris-based Eutelsat’s Eutelsat 9B satellite. It is this satellite that will debut EDRS commercial service and the start of funding from the European Commission, EDRS’s anchor customer.

The commission owns the European Space Agency-developed Sentinel Earth observation satellites, two sets of which carry laser terminals to relay their data to the geostationary platforms.

Sentinel 1A is already in orbit, and Sentinel 2A is scheduled for launch on June 23. Identical copies of both satellites are under construction, and all will carry laser terminals to deliver data at speeds of up to 1.8 gigabits per second to the geostationary satellites.

Airbus had hoped that 2015 would be the breakout year for EDRS, with the start of commercial services that would coax potential future customers into service commitments. That now looks less likely.

Eutelsat 9B is one of several commercial satellites awaiting a return to flight of Russia’s Proton rocket following the vehicle’s failure in May.

Eutelsat has said it expects the Russian government commission investigating the May failure to deliver its initial report in early July. Industry officials have said that could mean a resumption of Proton flights in September, but even this remains uncertain.

The current Proton manifest has commercial launches for mobile satellite services provider Inmarsat of London as the first customer, with Turksat of Turkey as the second and Eutelsat in third position. Whether any Russian government missions will be inserted between these commercial flights is not clear.

Each month that passes is a month without EDRS revenue for Airbus.

“It’s very unfortunate for us; no service means no pay,” said Evert Dudok, Airbus’s Communications, Intelligence and Security division, which manages EDRS. “This is what public-private partnerships are about — without a satellite up there, there is no payment and we think it’s likely the delay will last until the end of the year. We are hoping for the end of the year.”

The second geostationary-orbiting satellite to carry an EDRS laser terminal is called EDRS-C. Avanti Communications of London is placing its own telecommunications payload on the satellite following an agreement with ESA and calls the satellite Hylas 3.

Various delays have forced that satellite’s launch, originally set for 2015, into mid-2017. Addressing an EDRS panel here during the Paris Air Show, Dudok said the EDRS-C/Hylas 3 satellite remains on its revised schedule of a mid-2017 launch aboard a European Ariane 5 rocket.

Airbus’s goal in the EDRS program is to create what it calls a global SpaceDataHighway, which for unbroken coverage would need at least one more geostationary satellite in orbit, over the Asia-Pacific.

The company has been marketing SpaceDataHighway services to the U.S. government, selling the jamproof virtues of optical communications over radio frequencies, and the multi-gigabit-per-second throughput as higher-bandwidth alternative for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

In presentations to prospective military customers, Airbus has said it ultimately plans four geostationary nodes.

EDRS-A on Eutelsat 9B will operate from 9 degrees east. EDRS-C/Hylas-3 will operate from 31 degrees east. Airbus has said a hosted payload on telecommunications satellite for launch around 2020 could be placed at 130 degrees east, with a fourth node later positioned at 130 degrees west.

To jump-start use of laser links by the U.S. military, Airbus entered into a partnership with General Atomics-Aeronautical Systems of Poway, California, the manufacturer of the Predator line of UAVs.

Stefan Klein, head of General Atomics Specialtechnik Dresden GmbH, said General Atomics has designed its own airborne laser communications systems, for which a preliminary design review is expected this year.

A first round of ground demonstrations should occur within two years, he said, with an airborne demonstration in 2018 or 2019. That could lead to production-line introduction starting at the end of the decade, he said.

That schedule is at least two years behind what Airbus had planned.

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.