FARNBOROUGH, England — Space-based maritime surveillance and the introduction of Europe’s first all-electric satellites into the commercial market are among the top priorities of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) telecommunications directorate as it seeks a multiyear financial package later this year, ESA Telecommunications Director Magali Vaissiere said.

Both initiatives illustrate the evolution of the 19-nation ESA, which is moving beyond its research and technology background toward a more direct investment in near-term commercial applications.

In the case of a space-based Automatic Identification System (AIS), the agency is entering a field that already features two commercial competitors in exactEarth of Canada and Orbcomm of the United States. Both companies are fielding AIS-equipped satellites designed to deliver ship ownership, cargo, destination and location to coastal authorities.

Both companies have several AIS-enabled satellites in orbit and are planning more. On July 22 a Russian Soyuz rocket operating from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan is scheduled to launch the exactView-1 satellite for exactEarth, which is owned by Com Dev of Canada and Hisdesat of Spain.

Fort Lee, N.J.-based Orbcomm recently added two satellites built by LuxSpace of Luxembourg to its AIS capability and has scheduled the launch of 18 second-generation Orbcomm satellites, all equipped with AIS, in the next two years.

LuxSpace, owned by OHB AG of Germany, recently contracted with the European Maritime Safety Agency for AIS services.

ESA would like to enter this business niche not to compete with the established commercial players but to advance the technology, Vaissiere said. The agency will propose to its governments in November that they finance development of a single AIS satellite whose performance, Vaissiere said, is far superior to anything now offered by the commercial market.

“We do what the others don’t do,” she said. “We can offer a performance well beyond what is offered by the private entities now active, and we can develop value-added applications. The current satellites now offer only very basic service.”

Government and industry officials agree that the trick to effective AIS, especially on crowded sea routes, is to be able to sort incoming signals from hundreds, even thousands, of ships and deliver the information to coastal authorities.

For the moment, ESA is proposing to develop and launch one satellite and to test the service until 2020. After that it likely would be handed over to a private operator. Vaissiere said the agency also is considering whether to add an AIS terminal to Europe’s Sentinel 1C radar Earth observation satellite. Canadian government officials are weighing the same scenario for their next-generation radar Earth observation system, called the Radarsat Constellation Mission.

In a separate request to be submitted to its governments in November, ESA is proposing to modernize the commercial satellite platforms offered by Europe’s Astrium Satellites and Thales Alenia Space, notably with an all-electric option. An all-electric satellite dispenses with conventional chemical propulsion that today’s satellites use to climb from their transfer orbit drop-off points to final geostationary position.

For operators that can wait the several months it takes for an all-electric satellite to make the trip, the reward is a satellite that is up to half the weight of a conventionally fueled satellite, meaning lower launch costs or more payload added to the satellite.

Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of Seal Beach, Calif., is the first to commercialize an all-electric design, booking an order for three or four such satellites from two commercial satellite fleet operators. ESA is worried that European manufacturers are several years behind Boeing in developing an all-electric model, and the agency wants to speed things up.

Vaissiere said her directorate is proposing to spend 300 million euros ($375 million) over four years on what it calls the Neosat or Next-Generation Platform. The new platform would include numerous new features, including standardized interfaces to make it easier for component subcontractors to sell to multiple prime contractors and achieve scale economies.

Vaissiere made clear that electric propulsion was the high priority. She said ESA would propose development of a ground prototype Neosat/Next-Generation Platform. Europe’s commercial contractors then would be free to integrate the new features into their portfolios.

Vaissiere said ESA is also assembling a proposal to field an all-electric satellite in partnership with a commercial satellite operator willing to take the risk on a single satellite in which ESA would be an investor. This public-private partnership could result in a satellite being launched in parallel to the Neosat program.



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