PARIS — The European Space Agency (ESA) has selected Astrium Services to manage development and operations of a European Data Relay System (EDRS) that would feature one dedicated satellite and one piggyback payload, both in geostationary orbit, linked by optical lasers to low-orbiting Earth observation satellites, ESA and Astrium officials said Jan. 14.

The 18-nation ESA will act as anchor tenant for the system, paying Astrium Services an annual fee in return for making data-relay services available for Europe’s Global Monitoring for Environment and Security, or GMES, an Earth observation satellite network being built by ESA and the 27-nation European Union.

ESA Director Jean-Jacques Dordain said that while ESA is still rounding up the remaining necessary subscriptions and has not finalized the budget, EDRS is expected to cost about 376 million euros ($500 million). Some 100 million euros of that would be paid by Astrium Services as its contribution to the construction and launch of the two satellite payloads.

ESA approved the EDRS program in November 2008 following a strong push from the German government, whose enthusiasm for EDRS is so strong that Germany has agreed to pay for more than 50 percent of the ESA bill.

Germany’s Tesat Spacecom of Backnang would supply the laser terminals, while OHB Technology of Bremen, Germany, would be prime contractor for the dedicated EDRS satellite, using the ESA-financed Small Geo platform OHB is developing.


ESA and Germany Reach Agreement on Data Relay System

Dordain said he hopes the remaining funds needed to start EDRS construction will be committed by ESA governments in the coming weeks. After that, he said, a firm contract will be signed with Astrium Services.

ESA settled on Astrium Services after a competition that lasted more than a year and included Telespazio of Rome and Eutelsat of Paris.

Dordain brushed aside the remaining obstacles to the program, saying he is determined to get EDRS started within weeks. But he conceded that the effort must contend with several unknowns that would pose severe problems for most programs.

The first of these is that the GMES Earth observation system is being managed by the European Commission, not ESA. Although ESA is taking part in the development of the GMES Sentinel series of satellites, it is the commission alone that is responsible for financing GMES operations. That would include the purchase of EDRS services to speed the delivery of GMES optical and radar data to its civil and, perhaps, military users.

But the European Commission has been unable to find the money to meet its existing GMES commitments, much less add new program features like EDRS. Dordain said ESA is stepping in to sign the contract with Astrium Services on the assumption that, sooner or later, the European Commission will secure a budget for GMES operations.

“It is inconceivable that the commission would build GMES and then decide not to operate it,” he said in an interview. “Look, the budget for total GMES operations is going to be several hundred million euros per year. The budget for EDRS services will be a small portion of that, much less than 100 million euros per year. We don’t think the risk involved is all that great, despite the lack of clarity about European Commission financing.”

David Chegnion, vice president for business development at Astrium Services, acknowledged the risk factors remaining in EDRS, notably whether a sustainable market for EDRS services can be found beyond ESA and the European Commission. Measuring those risks is one part of the negotiations under way between ESA and Astrium Services, Chegnion said in a Jan. 14 interview.

Beyond ESA and the European Commission, Chegnion said, Astrium sees a data-relay market for rapid delivery of Earth observation data to other governments, starting in Europe.

“Our reasoning is that this is an emerging market for geo-information that has risks, but is promising,” Chegnion said. “We think the geo-information market is moving from a mapping model to a model characterized by reactive surveillance and broadband relay. Reducing the time from ordering an image to when the user receives it, and enabling users to receive vast quantities of data, are the drivers.”

Astrium Services’ GEO Information division includes the French optical Spot satellites and the TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X radar Earth observation developed in Germany. Follow-on satellites could be equipped with laser terminals to become part of the EDRS client base, Chegnion said. He said Astrium Services has begun negotiations with operators of European telecommunications satellites to secure a place for the EDRS laser communications terminal aboard one of these spacecraft, which could be launched by early 2014.

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