Eumetsat Fails To Win Approval for Weather Satellite Program

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PARIS — The ruling council of Europe’s Eumetsat meteorological satellite organization on March 26 failed to approve a $4.4 billion next-generation weather-satellite system when two of its 26 members withheld their votes, Eumetsat officials said.

With unanimity required to move the Meteosat Third Generation (MTG) program forward, the project will essentially stand still until these two nations, which Eumetsat declined to identify, give their written endorsement for the approval process to restart.

Germany withheld its vote for reasons related to its industry’s work share on the program, government and industry officials said. Portugal also withheld its vote, for reasons that are less clear but likely are related to that country’s economic situation.

Eumetsat Director of Administration Angiolo Rolli said in an interview that the two nations nonetheless expressed support for MTG and said they would deliver a formal opinion on it by June 30.

MTG is a six-satellite system designed to provide some 20 years of meteorological data starting in 2016 or 2017. It is budgeted at about 3.3 billion euros ($4.4 billion), with Eumetsat paying 75 percent of the cost and the 18-nation European Space Agency (ESA) funding the remaining share.

Rolli said that if Eumetsat can recover lost time in its approval process and collect the required signatures from its member nations by the end of this year, the program will not suffer any serious delays.

Rolli conceded that the stalemate at Eumetsat is related to the problems MTG has faced at ESA, which is managing the contract to build the six MTG satellites.

An unusually time-consuming tender evaluation at ESA resulted in the agency’s selection of a bid by Thales Alenia Space of France and OHB Technology of Germany over a competing bid by Astrium Satellites of Germany. The winning bid is valued at about 1.25 billion euros, which bested the Astrium bid by about 160 million euros, European government and industry officials said.

Germany has raised questions over whether the evaluation of the two bids was correctly handled, and German government officials expressed frustration that their industry would not be the MTG prime contractor. While the Thales Alenia Space-led bid divides work evenly between France and Germany — as required by ESA rules given the two nations’ equal contribution to MTG — the French company will be prime contractor.

ESA is creating a six-member Procurement Review Board that will begin work in June. The agency has pressed the board’s members into early service to review the MTG selection process to ensure that it did not violate ESA’s standard selection criteria. The board is expected to deliver its opinion in time for a June meeting of ESA’s Industrial Policy Committee, which has check-writing authority for the agency.

Rolli said the ESA process was “one of the reasons” the two holdout Eumetsat governments agreed to the June 30 vote deadline.