WASHINGTON — The European Space Agency has awarded three contracts worth a quarter of a billion dollars to develop a pair of navigation missions, including one to test the feasibility of a low Earth orbit satellite constellation.

ESA announced the award of the contracts for its FutureNAV program March 19, with a combined value of 233.4 million euros ($253 million). The contracts cover two missions, called Genesis and LEO-PNT.

“With Genesis and LEO-PNT we are responding to rapidly growing needs for more resilient and precise navigation and ensuring Europe leads global satellite navigation,” Javier Benedicto, ESA’s director of navigation, said in a statement about the contracts.

One contract, valued at 76.6 million euros, went to a consortium led by OHB Italia to develop Genesis. That spacecraft will carry a suite of instruments to improve the International Terrestrial Reference Frame (ITRF), which provides a coordinate system for use in navigation systems and in Earth science. That system is based on the center of mass of the Earth, including oceans and atmosphere.

Genesis will refine the ITRF with several geodetic instruments, like laser ranging and very-long-baseline interferometry, with a goal of providing an accuracy of one millimeter. Genesis is scheduled to launch in 2028.

Two other contracts, each valued at 78.4 million euros. were awarded for LEO-PNT, an effort to demonstrate the viability of LEO constellation to provide positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) services. One contract went to GMV Aerospace and Defence, partnered with OHB System, while the other went to Thales Alenia Space.

The goal of LEO-PNT is to deploy a set of small satellites in LEO to test how such spacecraft could augment Galileo and other navigation systems operating in higher orbits. There is growing interest in LEO navigation satellite systems that could produce stronger signals that could improve service in urban areas and be more resistant to jamming. LEO-PNT will also test the use of 5G and 6G communications protocols that could combine navigation with applications like Internet of Things services.

ESA did not disclose how many satellites will be deployed for LEO-PNT, although Thales said in a separate statement it plans to launch five spacecraft as part of an “end-to-end solution” funded by the contract. ESA said the first LEO-PNT satellite is expected to launch by late 2025 with the entire system in orbit in 2027.

The overall FutureNAV initiative was a priority for ESA’s navigation program going into the 2022 ministerial meeting. At the time ESA was seeking 80 million euros for Genesis and 100 million for LEO-PNT. FutureNAV was oversubscribed at the ministerial, with member states seeking to invest more money into those programs.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...