EC Still Undecided on ‘Free and Open’ Access Data Policy

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PARIS — The European Commission (EC) has withheld endorsement of a European Space Agency (ESA) policy guaranteeing “free and open” access to satellite Earth observation data pending a review of the policy’s effects on Europe’s Earth observation services industry, government and industry officials said.

Operators of small Earth observation systems have expressed concerns that the policy would release vast quantities of data from European government satellite systems and swamp these companies’ still-shaky financial viability.

In a Nov. 24 conference here on space policy options, Europe’s biggest Earth observation concern, Astrium Services — which operates high-resolution optical and radar systems whose business models were thought to be safe from the release of free government satellite data — said it too is asking the commission to think twice.

Marc Tondriaux, director of geo-information services at Astrium Services, said the problem is on the margins of what Astrium Services offers on a commercial basis.

The coming series of Sentinel satellites being built for ESA and the European Commission as part of Europe’s Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program is “not, for the most part, in competition with commercial satellites,” he said. “But there are border areas that could cause problems.”

A European Commission official agreed. Mauro Facchini, deputy chief of the GMES Bureau, said “free and open” does not always mean without charge. While the commission wants to encourage the growth of value-added industries and the widest distribution of Earth imagery, it is conscious of not wanting to undermine a commercial industry the commission also wants to encourage, he said.

“There is some overlap” between what GMES will offer and what the commercial sector provides, Facchini said during the conference, organized by Euroconsult and the French aerospace industries association, GIFAS. “Some people in industry have told us users might be willing to accept less-than-optimal imagery, if it is free, rather than purchase commercial data, even if it is more tailored to what they want.”

Facchini said the commission has not resolved the issue and is still taking inputs from industry and others. “But we want the data as available as possible to stimulate the market,” he said.

Sir Martin Sweeting, founder of small-satellite specialist Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. of Britain, which builds Earth observation satellites and is weighing a possible Earth observation constellation of its own, also has questioned the ESA policy. Sweeting is concerned that if the “free and open” policy is not limited to archived data but includes regularly refreshed imagery, a commercial company will have a rough time competing. GMES uses the Sentinel series of government-financed satellites, but also includes regular use of third-party satellite data, often coming from commercial companies. The free distribution policy would not apply to imagery with security implications, and it would adhere to licensing arrangements when the data are from third-party sources, Facchini said.

Astrium Services owns Spot Image, which operates the Spot series of optical Earth observation satellites financed by the French government. Astrium is spending about 300 million euros ($408 million), with no government support, to build, launch and insure two follow-on Spot satellites, Spot 6 and 7, for launch in 2012 and 2013.

The company also owns, in partnership with the German government, the TerraSAR-X radar satellite, which has been joined in orbit by is twin, TanDEM-X, for a two-year German government mission to fly the satellites in close formation to produce stereo imagery.

During this period, TerraSAR-X is of reduced value for commercial purposes for Infoterra of Germany, which is owned by Astrium Services and markets the radar data. TanDEM-X is fully dedicated to the dual-collection mission. Once the tandem mission is over — it is scheduled to last less than two years — the newer TanDEM-X spacecraft will be available to Infoterra for commercial data collection, Tondriaux said.

Astrium Services’ geo-information division employs 900 people in 14 nations and in 2009 reported 180 million euros in revenue, the majority of which was from Spot Image. Two-thirds of the revenue came from customers outside Europe, Tondriaux said.

Tondriaux said the basic question that has yet to be answered is whether European governments want to assure the long-term viability of a commercial Earth imagery industry or are willing to provide long-term data continuity for users solely through taxpayer-financed spacecraft.

“We need to establish a durable economic model, and a coherent policy on data access,” he said. “It takes about three or four years to build and launch and check out in orbit an Earth observation satellite. You have 10 years of in-orbit service life, and it takes between seven and eight years to break even. You can see why we need governments to establish rules of the game.”