The European Space Agency's ADM-Aeolus satellite. Credit: ESA artist's concept by P. Carril

TOULOUSE, France — Massive schedule delays and cost overruns on two European Earth observation missions, both using lasers to illuminate the Earth’s atmosphere and measure the reflected results, have caused the European Space Agency to modify the way it contracts for environmental satellites with unproven technology.

The new procedures will result in a time lag between the contract for an observing instrument and the overall satellite program contract award. The goal is to allow time to assure the instrument is ready to be placed on a satellite before committing full program funding.

The procedures should permit advanced technologies to be developed to a sufficiently high Technology Readiness Level to permit a straightforward qualification and placement on a satellite before other resources are committed.

The aim is to avoid a repeat of what has happened with two of ESA’s Earth Explorer missions, Atmospheric Dynamics Mission (ADM)-Aeolus and EarthCare.

Both satellites have faced delays so extensive they look like typographical errors. ESA contracted with Airbus Defence and Space to build the ADM-Aeolus global wind-speed-measuring satellite in 2003. Under the contract, valued then at 300 million euros ($330 million at today’s exchange rate), the satellite was to be launched in 2007.

Airbus and ESA now say Aeolus should be ready for launch in 2017 aboard a European Vega rocket after the recent delivery and test of its two lidar laser components from manufacturer Selex Galileo of Italy.

EarthCare, which includes a cloud-profile radar provided by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency in addition to a Selex Galileo-provided lidar, was contracted to Airbus in 2008 at an initial value of 263 million euros, with a launch scheduled for 2013.

The satellite is now tentatively scheduled for launch, aboard a Europeanized Russian Soyuz vehicle, in late 2018. But this date presumes a glitch-free lidar development in the wake of the progress on Aeolus.

EarthCare (above) was contracted to Airbus in 2008 with a launch scheduled for 2013. The satellite is now tentatively scheduled for launch in late 2018. Credit: ESA artist’s concept by P. Carril

Volker Liebig, ESA’s director of Earth observation, declined to criticize Airbus or Selex Galileo for what he conceded have been stunning program hiccups tied to the lidars’ development.

“We have had to learn a lot about ultraviolet-laser-induced damage on optical surfaces in a vacuum,” Liebig said May 21. “No one else has done this. At one point in the program we asked NASA for advice — they have flown a lidar, but with different characteristics — and they basically told us, ‘When you find out the answers, please let us know.’”

In an interview, Liebig said that while the Earth Explorer missions — seven have been approved and contracted — are designed to push the technology envelope, Aeolus and EarthCare pushed too far.

“Because of this experience, for Earth Explorer 8 we will start instrument development before we start the satellite,” Liebig said. “We will want to see results of full-model tests, in a vacuum, before beginning work on the rest of the mission.”

Liebig said that for Explorer missions carrying new technologies, ESA and its contractors — Airbus in this case — do not sign conventional firm fixed-price contracts. ESA agrees to come in with additional financing if a technology roadblock is encountered.

This has occurred with Aeolus, which Liebig said now has an estimated cost at completion, to ESA, of about 450 million euros, a 50 percent overrun. The overruns on EarthCare are still subject to negotiations between the agency and Airbus, and Liebig declined to speculate on where the program cost will end up.

“At the time of the contracts, Selex Galileo was the only company in Europe that could make these lasers,” Liebig said. “We helped them [Airbus and Selex Galileo] out a lot, but I don’t want to go into details of the [Aeolus and EarthCare] contract terms.”

Michael Menking
Michael Menking, head of Airbus Defense and Space’s Earth Observation, Navigation and Science division, suggested that neither Aeolus nor EarthCare would find a place of honor in the company’s financial statement. Credit: ESA photo by P. Sebirot

At a May 20 briefing here on Airbus’ Earth observation satellite program, which may be the most extensive in the world — the company has 18 environment-monitoring satellites in development — Airbus officials said the Aeolus and EarthCare lidars, including the world’s first Doppler lidar, constituted “a clear ‘Mission Impossible’” at the start.

Michael Menking, head of Airbus Defense and Space’s Earth Observation, Navigation and Science division, declined to specify whether Airbus has lost money on one or both programs but suggested that neither would find a place of honor in the company’s financial statement.

Jean Dauphin, head of Earth observation at the Airbus’ French branch, said the company was able to limit the damage by putting the non-lidar-related Aeolus work in near-hibernation while the lidar issues were addressed.

For EarthCare, Dauphin said, Airbus basically set the program aside so as not to encounter lidar-related issues that were already being dealt with on the Aeolus program.

Menking and Dauphin said Airbus has verified the health of the two lidar elements, for transmitting the ultraviolet lidar signal and collecting the return data — all on a 1.3-meter-diameter telescope — that Selex Galileo has delivered. Both have passed initial testing, they said, paving the way for what they hope will be a more predictable program development to completion.

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