PARIS — Astrium Services and the European Space Agency (ESA) on Oct. 4 announced they had signed a contract for the development and launch of the European Data Relay System (EDRS), which will use high-speed optical links on two geostationary satellites to relay Earth observation data.

After nearly nine months of negotiations, the 19-nation ESA committed to paying Astrium 275 million euros ($366 million) as ESA’s share in the construction of EDRS. Astrium Services has agreed to contribute an undisclosed amount — “tens of millions of euros,” one official said — to the system’s development.

Astrium’s agreement to put its funds at risk without any guaranteed market for data relay services has been a key component of what ESA is referring to as the EDRS public-private partnership. The contract is the first time that a company has taken on the risk associated with creating a data relay market that heretofore has not existed.

While many European government missions for civil, military and commercial Earth observation are viewed as potential EDRS customers, none has committed to it, ESA and Astrium officials said.

The first EDRS payload will be launched aboard a commercial telecommunications satellite owned and operated by Eutelsat of Paris. In a separate announcement, Eutelsat and Astrium announced Oct. 4 that Astrium Satellites, a sister company of Astrium Services, will manufacture the satellite, to be called Eutelsat 9B, in time for a launch in late 2014.

Eutelsat 9B will be operated at Eutelsat’s 9 degrees east longitude slot in geostationary orbit. It will carry 66 Ku-band transponders to deliver television to a European audience. The satellite also will feature a regional beam that will be targeted at Italy and used by the Italian government and Eutelsat.

Eutelsat 9B is expected to weigh about 5,300 kilograms at launch and generate 12 kilowatts of power to its payload at the end of its 15-year service life.

The EDRS payload on board will feature a laser communications terminal built by Tesat Spacecom of Backnang, Germany. The total EDRS package is expected to weigh 300 kilograms and require about 800 watts of power. It will relay radar and optical data from low-orbiting Earth observation satellites to users at speeds of up to 1.8 gigabits per second.

A Tesat official said the laser terminal itself weighs 53 kilograms and requires 180 watts of power at full operation.

The second EDRS payload will be onboard a smaller satellite on which the laser terminal is the principal mission. This spacecraft will be manufactured by OHB AG of Bremen, Germany, under a contract with Astrium Services that has yet to be signed but whose details have been agreed to by both companies, according to David Chegnion, vice president for business development at Astrium Services.

This satellite, based on the new Small-Geo satellite platform being developed by OHB, mainly with ESA financing, is expected to weigh around 3,200 kilograms at launch. The current launch date is late 2015.

In an Oct. 4 interview, Chegnion said Astrium Services has yet to select an orbital slot for the spacecraft, which ideally will be many degrees distant from Eutelsat 9B’s 9 degrees east position on the geostationary arc to maximize the coverage area.

Tesat-built laser communications terminals have flown in low Earth orbit to demonstrate intersatellite links, but they have never operated from geostationary orbit. The Alphasat satellite now in development for mobile satellite services operator Inmarsat of London, which is expected to be launched by early 2013, includes a laser terminal and will demonstrate the technology’s capacity at the higher orbit.

The OHB-built EDRS satellite has room to carry hardware for missions unrelated to data relay. ESA has invited companies interested in placing their communications or other payloads on the satellite to make offers.

Rudi Schmidt, head of ESA’s telecom projects department, said ESA is offering 160 kilograms and about 1 kilowatt of power in total capacity for one or more hosted payloads that will be launched with the EDRS satellite. In an Oct. 4 interview, Schmidt said ESA will be selecting the payloads and collecting the fees for them.

ESA selected Astrium Services as EDRS system operator in January after a lengthy competition. But rounding up the final contract signatories took months longer than planned, in part because of the difficulty of getting all the players — ESA, Astrium Services, OHB, Eutelsat and the system’s subcontractors — to agree to the terms and conditions.

The delay has meant that EDRS will not be partially operational in orbit until early 2015, with both satellites ready for service in early 2016.

Schmidt said that while it is Astrium’s job to select a launch vehicle for the OHB-built EDRS satellite and negotiate insurance coverage, ESA has set minimum conditions on the selected rocket’s demonstrated liability.

But Astrium will not be obliged to use a European Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket or a medium-lift Russian Soyuz vehicle, which will be operated at Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport starting this year.

“Obviously our strong preference is that a European vehicle be used,” Schmidt said. But that is not a condition of the contract.

The presumed biggest early market for EDRS is Europe’s Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program. The GMES Sentinel 1 and Sentinel 2 Earth observation satellites — two models of each are being built to start — will each carry laser communications terminals, also provided by Tesat Spacecom.

But GMES’s status at the commission of the 27-nation European Union will not be clear until the commission’s next seven-year budget, starting in 2014, is decided.

Also unclear is whether European defense forces will decide to equip their next-generation satellite systems — radar spacecraft in Germany, Italy and Spain, and optical satellites in France and Spain — with data relay units.

To protect Astrium against the possibility that no data relay market materializes, ESA and Astrium have created a committee that will track EDRS’s development and, if necessary, propose additional ESA investment. Schmidt said there is no set formula for this, and that neither ESA nor Astrium Services believes this situation is likely to develop.



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Astrium Picked To Build and Operate European Data Relay System

ESA and Germany Reach Agreement on Data Relay System 


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