Europe’s emerging policy of offering free and open access to almost all data from the European Space Agency (ESA) and European Union Sentinel Earth observation satellites won praise from U.S. government officials and from prospective users of the satellites’ diverse data sets.

Owners of satellite systems that were all or partly funded by the private sector, and whose business models are based on imagery sales, have other ideas.

For these companies, the new policy, disclosed by ESA and European Commission officials during the Living Planet Symposium held June 28 to July 2 in Bergen, Norway, poses threats as well as opportunities.

“The big question mark: Will EU really give away Sentinel data to all for free?” asked Pedro Duque, managing director of Deimos Imaging of Spain, which has launched its own small Earth observation satellite and is weighing the launch of a second.

In a presentation to the symposium, Duque asked: “Will that kill the emerging, competitive, profitable European Earth observation data supplier industry — including us?” Deimos-1 was launched in July 2009 and — after several months of troubleshooting glitches related to the ground segment — the satellite has been integrated into the multinational Disaster Monitoring Constellation. The company bills itself as the first in Europe to have financed its own Earth observation satellite.

Delivering imagery with a 22-meter ground resolution in three spectral bands, Deimos-1 is aimed primarily at an agricultural market that overlaps with the markets targeted by the Sentinel satellites being financed by ESA and the European Commission as part of a broad European project called Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES).

In addition to throwing open the data from the future Sentinel satellites, ESA has changed its policy with respect to the in-orbit Envisat and ERS-2 Earth observation spacecraft, making these satellites’ data free of charge as well.

“Full and open access to all users … to make data easily available around the world” is how ESA views the data policy, said Susanne Mecklenburg, mission manager for ESA’s Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity satellite.

In a presentation outlining the rationale for the open-access policy, Mecklenburg said the agency is facing increased demand for data as part of a global scientific examination of climate change. In addition, she said, NASA has stated its preference for free and open access to data. The Group on Earth Observations, a 70-nation organization based in Geneva that is attempting to coordinate Earth observation efforts worldwide, also has championed the idea of dropping access fees.

The European Commission, which ultimately will take charge of GMES, has not yet formally delivered final judgment on data-access rules, but Mecklenburg said ESA and the commission have been working closely for two years on the policy and the decision is all but certain.

Deimos is not the only company in Europe whose business plans may be upended by a broad, free-of-charge distribution of Earth imagery data. Spot Image of France and Infoterra of Britain and Germany, as well as e-Geos in Italy, all have businesses that generate revenue from sales of imagery. While the GMES data policy will not be imposed on satellites financed by others, it will almost certainly change the commercial landscape.

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