ESA and Germany Reach Agreement on Data Relay System

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BRUSSELS, Belgium — The European and German space agencies have reached agreement on how to manage Europe’s planned data-relay satellite service for which Germany is the lead investor and German-built laser-optical communications is a key technology, the heads of the two agencies said.

The program’s backers said the agreement does not mean the European Data Relay System (EDRS) is assured of being built. Financing from other European Space Agency (ESA) nations has been insufficient in the nearly 12 months since the program was tentatively approved by ESA governments in November 2008.

But they said that with the resolution of open issues, including those related to intellectual property rights on the laser terminals, the program should be able to secure the needed additional support.

“This was a very delicate issue with [intellectual property rights] that we have resolved with ESA and I think we can now convince more member states to support EDRS,” said Johann-Dietrich Woerner, chairman of the executive board of the German Aerospace Center, DLR.

In an Oct. 13 interview, Woerner said DLR was inviting other ESA nations to a November conference in Geneva to try to win support for the program, which ESA and DLR view as a private-public partnership to be managed by a private-sector operator.

ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain agreed. In an Oct. 9 interview, Dordain said that without the agreement on technology ownership and division of roles, EDRS would not have moved forward. He said he is optimistic that ESA now can move ahead on EDRS with its customary program support solicitations.

EDRS’s first identified purpose is to speed receipt in Europe of Earth observation data from the Sentinel 1 and Sentinel 2 satellites, being built as part of the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security program financed by ESA and by the European Commission.

Some officials have said that Europe’s defense forces also would want to make use of EDRS, but for now neither the European Commission nor any defense agency is part of the program. Woerner said DLR would like the program kept inside ESA and that, up to now, DLR has not actively sought European Commission backing.

ESA had asked its member states in November 2008 for some 230 million euros ($339 million) for EDRS, a system that would feature two data-relay payloads to be placed on commercial telecommunications satellites as piggyback payloads, and a third dedicated satellite, also in geostationary orbit.

Germany agreed immediately to commit about 50 percent of the total. Several other, smaller ESA member states together added contributions that brought the total to around 170 million euros — an insufficient sum, under ESA rules, to begin full-scale development.

Nonetheless, ESA began three competing preliminary studies with companies that have expressed interest in bidding for the contract to manage EDRS. Those firms are Astrium Services, Telespazio and Eutelsat.

Magali Vaissiere, ESA director of telecommunications, said these three companies will finish their initial studies by the end of 2009. In the spring of 2010, ESA expects to send out a request for bids to potential EDRS operators. The open tender will not be limited to the three current participants.

In an Oct. 15 interview, Vaissiere said by mid-2010 ESA should be ready to seek additional subscriptions from its member states.

Vaissiere said ESA has not yet determined the exact business model ESA will adopt for EDRS. One model could be that the operator is given a contract, likely to last 15 years, and is paid an annual fee in return for maintaining and operating the EDRS system. Under this model, ESA would be the EDRS operator’s principal customer, but perhaps not its only one.

It is possible, she said, that the EDRS needs of ESA — mainly for its Earth observation satellites — will not fully book the system’s capacity and that other fee-paying customers could be found by the system operator.

If an operator is contracted by mid-2010, that could leave enough time to find a commercial satellite owner that has a satellite in development and planned for launch in 2013, before the Artemis data-relay satellite is retired.

Given Germany’s current share of the program’s financing, OHB Technology of Bremen, Germany, is the almost-certain choice to be prime contractor for the EDRS dedicated satellite. OHB is developing a new geostationary-orbiting satellite product, called Small-Geo, under ESA funding, and this is the platform that will be used for EDRS, Vaissiere said.