Europe Seeks Right Public, Private Funding Mix for Imaging Sats

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PARIS — Astrium Services’ decision to invest $400 million of its own money to build two follow-on Spot optical Earth observation satellites resulted from unique circumstances and should not be viewed as the beginning of a trend in Earth observation, a senior Astrium official said May 29.

Jean-Michel Darroy, director general of Astrium Geo-Information Services France, cautioned governments that they should not count on the private sector to invest in Earth observation satellites without substantial government support.

Addressing a conference at the French space agency, CNES, here organized by Choiseul Institute, Darroy said Astrium agreed to invest in the identical Spot 6 and Spot 7 medium-resolution satellites only because the French government had financed 100 percent of the development of two high-resolution satellites, called Pleiades.

The first Pleiades satellite was launchedin late 2011 and the second is scheduled for launch in 2013. Spot 6 is awaiting a launch late this year on an Indian PSLV rocket, with Spot 7 scheduled to launch in 2014.

Astrium invested 300 million euros ($400 million) in Spot 6 and Spot 7 without any government support or imagery purchase guarantees. The French government’s decision not to invest or commit broke with 20 years of practice that resulted in the creation of the Spot satellite series.

Astrium took the plunge to save the Spot product line only because it will have access to Pleiades data, which it plans to sell on the commercial market.

“It will be difficult for industry to assume, on its own, the cost of the [satellite Earth observation] infrastructure,” Darroy said. “Our investment in the AstroTerra platform for Spot 6 and Spot 7 was only possible with the arrival of Pleiades and the synergies we could develop in our operations.”

Darroy contrasted Astrium’s investment with the U.S. government’s agreement to guarantee U.S. satellite Earth observation companies DigitalGlobe and GeoEye a fixed amount of imagery purchases over 10 years as part of a program called EnhancedView.

Darroy said that even if EnhancedView is now threatened by budget cuts, it represents a huge investment in commercial Earth observation that has not been matched in France or anywhere else in Europe.

Astrium Geo-Information Services Germany is facing the same dilemma in radar satellite Earth observation data as that which was confronted by the company’s French division for optical imagery.

Astrium’s German arm markets data from the TerraSAR-X and TanDem-X radar satellites, launched in June 2007 and June 2010, respectively. The two satellites cost a combined 350 million euros including construction and launch. The German Aerospace Center, DLR, paid 78 percent of the costs, with Astrium paying the rest.

At the time, Astrium was optimistic that radar data would find a sizable market among government agencies around the world and that the annual revenue would make it easy for the company to finance follow-on satellites.

That has not happened. Astrium and the German government have been in negotiations for more than a year on how and whether to launch a second-generation TerraSAR-X satellite to assure data continuity with the first satellite.

DLR has reluctantly agreed that the market for radar Earth observation data has not risen to the level needed to persuade industry to go it alone.

But Johann-Dietrich Woerner, executive chairman of DLR, insisted that industry must take a leading role in a follow-on TerraSAR-X satellite.

“It is not for us to decide whether there will be a TerraSAR-X 2,” Woerner said in a May 3 interview in Berlin. “It is for industry to decide.”

Behind that hard-line statement, however, Woerner said DLR has an interest in preserving the expertise and industrial base that Germany has acquired in radar Earth observation.

“X-band use was so successful we agree we need continuity of data,” Woerner said. “What we are thinking about now is doing in L-band what we have done with X-band — have two satellites in orbit that will operate in tandem and, among other things, monitor biomass concentrations. What we are discussing is how we can afford both X- and L-bands, and this is a question for industry as well.”

Woerner said DLR has begun preliminary talks with the Canadian Space Agency, which is having trouble financing the planned successor to the Radarsat-2 satellite launched in December 2007. The Canadian Space Agency has financed initial work on a three-satellite follow-on mission called Radarsat Constellation, but it is unclear whether full development funding will be made available. The Radarsat satellites operate in C-band.