Europe’s future data-relay satellite system to speed Earth observation imagery to users took a concrete step toward realization April 13 when system manager Astrium Services formalized an initial contract with satellite builder OHB Technology, Bremen, Germany-based OHB announced.

The contract, valued at 7.4 million euros ($10.4 million), is an authorization for OHB to proceed with designs of a satellite expected to cost about 150 million euros to build, OHB said. It would be launched in 2016 as part of a system that is intended to include a piggyback payload on a commercial telecommunications satellite in geostationary orbit. That satellite has not yet been selected.

The two satellites — a dedicated data-relay spacecraft built by OHB, and the piggyback spacecraft — both would carry laser optical terminals to relay data sent from low-orbiting Earth observation satellites to users on the ground. The terminals would be built by Tesat-Spacecom of Backnang, Germany.

The principal early customers are expected to be the 18-nation European Space Agency (ESA), which is financing the European Data Relay System (EDRS), and the 27-nation European Union, whose Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program features a fleet of Earth observation spacecraft, some of which will also carry laser terminals to send data to the relay satellites in higher geostationary orbit.

ESA officials have said they expect the entire EDRS system to cost nearly 400 million euros, a figure that includes the design, manufacture and launch of the laser terminals, the dedicated satellite and ESA’s share of the launch and operations costs associated with the piggyback payload on a commercial telecommunications satellite.

Astrium Services is expected to contribute about 100 million euros of this sum. In return, it will be paid an annual fee by ESA to provide EDRS services.