– The European Space Agency (ESA) expects to negotiate a contract with a telecommunications satellite operator to place a commercial payload aboard the agency’s first small geostationary, or small-GEO, spacecraft platform, ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said.


The arrangement is identical to what is planned for ESA’s Alphabus high-power communications satellite platform.


Both programs are part of a return by ESA to satellite telecommunications. The agency has not built its own telecommunications satellite since the Artemis data-relay spacecraft, launched in 2001, although ESA research funds continue to be spent on advanced broadband, mobile telecommunications and other technologies.


The Alphabus satellite platform, for payloads requiring anywhere from 12 to 18 kilowatts of power, is being funded by ESA and the French space agency, CNES, and built jointly by European competitors Astrium Satellites and Alcatel Alenia Space.


In addition to its technology-demonstration payload, the first Alphabus platform will carry a commercial package provided by the winner of a bidding competition. The two finalists are Inmarsat Ltd. of
and a joint proposal by Eutelsat Communications of Paris and Telespazio of Rome. Their bids are expected by late March.


The winner is expected to finance the construction and integration of its instruments and a portion of the launch, with the total private-sector investment expected to be 200 million euros ($258 million) or more. The first Alphabus launch is now not expected before 2011.


At a Jan. 17 press briefing here, Dordain said ESA would propose a similar arrangement for the small-GEO telecommunications platform, for payloads requiring around 3 kilowatts, being designed by OHB System of Bremen, Germany. A first launch is tentatively scheduled for 2010.


The Alphabus and small-GEO programs are the showcase programs in ESA’s telecommunications budget, which is expected to account for 8 percent of the agency’s spending in 2007, according to the 2007 spending plan released Jan. 17.


ESA’s total 2007 budget, at about 2.98 billion euros, represents an increase of some 2.5 percent over 2006. As has been the case throughout ESA’s history, launch vehicles constitute the biggest spending category.


Development of the Vega small-satellite launcher, preparations for operating
‘s Soyuz vehicle from
and support for operations of the Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket will account for 21 percent of the total budget in 2007.


Space exploration was added as a separate line in ESA’s budget in 2006. The agency is planning a Mars rover and subsurface drilling mission, called ExoMars, for 2013 and also is weighing a possible contribution to NASA’s lunar exploration program.


Making exploration a separate budget category permitted ESA to get around the predetermined space-science budget. Unlike almost every other ESA program, space science is funded by mandatory contributions from ESA’s 17 member governments, based on each nation’s gross domestic product.


The science budget is hard pressed to cover the costs associated with it has already approved and could not have accommodated a Mars or lunar exploration program.


Dordain said a final payload configuration for ExoMars will be determined by mid-year. When ExoMars’ 600 million-euro budget was approved in late 2005, it was assumed that a NASA telecommunications satellite in Mars orbit would be available to relay ExoMars data to Earth. That is now less certain as the ExoMars launch date has slipped.


“We’re not going to launch ExoMars only to find that there is no telecoms relay available,” Dordain said.


ESA’s program direction is determined every two or three years by meetings of its governments’ space ministers at which budget ceilings are set and programs approved. The next ministerial meeting is scheduled for 2008 and ESA is already taking steps to prepare an exploration-related proposal.


The agency is weighing a possible collaboration with Russia on a crew-transport vehicle, and Dordain said a role in a NASA-led lunar exploration program might include communications satellites in lunar orbit, or unspecified hardware on the surface to prepare for a human colony.


ESA had sketched out a long-term spending plan that assumed a substantial annual budget for space programs at the European Union’s executive commission. The commission has agreed to a substantial increase in space spending, mainly for Earth observation as part of
‘s Global Monitoring for Environment and Security project.


But how much European Commission money will be available to assist ESA in building satellites remains unknown. ESA and European Union governments are scheduled to meet in May to create a European Space Policy, which Dordain said should include commitments to follow-on Global Monitoring for Environment and Security satellites.


“Continuity beyond the first-generation satellites needs to be assured,” Dordain said. European Commission officials up to now have declined to commit to financing further spacecraft.