The European Space Agency’s Esoc space operations center here is in the unusual position of having to compete with other government agencies, and occasionally with the private sector, for the business of operating satellites.
Esoc Director Gaele Winters said the organization is fully aware that it will not survive in its current form unless it can win business based on quality and price, even when the business is generated by other European Space Agency (ESA) missions.
Esoc currently employs about 750 people, including 400 outside contractors, and operates on an annual budget of 220 million euros ($264 million). Its specialty is guiding satellites from their launch into their final orbital positions — a period known as the LEOPs , or launch and early operations phase.
When the satellite in question is an ESA science mission, the LEOP and mission operations job almost automatically goes to Esoc as operating science satellites, which are often in nonstandard orbits, is not yet a commercially profitable business.
“You won’t find anybody to run science missions in the commercial world,” Winters said in an interview here. “That is our core specialty. It’s not our job to compete with industry. We try to find our place in the world by concentrating on what we do best. We have enough business for the next three years. After that, I am a little worried.”
In the past decade, expertise in operating commercial satellites during the LEOP phase has been developed in the private sector, as well as in several individual European governments.
The French space agency, CNES, competes for LEOPs work from its Toulouse site. The German Space Operations Center in Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany, also has considerable experience in satellite and space-infrastructure operations, and Telespazio of Italy, owned by Finmeccanica of Italy and Alcatel of France, is making satellite operations part of its core business.
As a result, Esoc cannot count on a protected business base beyond certain scientific satellites launched by ESA. For example, Esoc won the contract to perform LEOPs for the Meteosat 9 meteorological satellite launched Dec. 21 only after a competitive bidding process managed by Eumetsat — despite the fact that it is ESA that was responsible for the design and procurement of the satellite.
ESA and its member governments, particularly France, Germany and Italy, in recent years have tried to promote the idea of a network of satellite operations centers that would be assembled in such a way as to permit all the existing centers to survive.
Industry and government officials disagree about whether the opportunities for space operations work open to European participation in the next decade is sufficient to permit peaceful coexistence among all the competing government and commercial entities.
Government officials say they particularly want to avoid the occasionally bitter competition that occurred when operations decisions were being made about Europe’s international space station contribution.
Winters said Esoc and CNES’ Toulouse center have reached a joint-venture agreement on the LEOP operations for Europe’s Galileo satellite navigation constellation that could serve as a model for future cooperation.
The Esoc-CNES accord, concluded in 2005, calls for the two centers to divide responsibility for the four Galileo test satellites to be launched around 2008. Esoc will manage two of them and CNES, the other two.
The full 30-satellite Galileo constellation will be run by a private consortium as a business, and the LEOP contract likely will be subject to competitive bids.
ESA government ministers agreed Dec. 6 to a multi year spending plan that features numerous science and Earth observation satellites, but Winters said he cannot assume that Esoc will be handed the work just because it is an ESA establishment.
“There is a high probability that we will get most of the work, because for these kinds of satellites it is not so easy to find expertise elsewhere,” Winters said. “But we will have to fight for the work.”
Esoc owns eight satellite tracking stations in Europe, Australia and South America and has cooperating agreements with stations in Kenya, Chile and Norway. Winters said Esoc is currently competing for about 30 contracts.