European Data-Relay Satellite’s Completion in Doubt

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PARIS — A data-relay satellite under construction as part of an ambitious partnership between the European Space Agency and Airbus Defence and Space may not be built because of ongoing concerns with the project’s business prospects, ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said Jan. 16.

The satellite is called EDRS-C by ESA and Airbus, and Hylas 3 by Avanti Communications of London. Avanti raised 73.8 million British pounds ($118 million) in early 2012 to finance a hosted telecommunications payload on board the satellite to expand its existing broadband telecommunications business.

Airbus and ESA signed an agreement under which Airbus would manage the European Data Relay Service (EDRS) as a business, with the European Union’s executive commission as an anchor tenant. The EU Commission would use laser terminals to relay data, at high speed, between EU Earth observation satellites in low orbit and satellites in higher geostationary orbit, all equipped with laser communications terminals.

Jean-Jacques Dordain. Credit: ESA/Stephane Corvaja
Jean-Jacques Dordain. Credit: ESA/Stephane Corvaja

Airbus has said it would be investing 130 million euros in EDRS.

Airbus and OHB AG of Bremen, Germany, in May 2013 signed a contract valued at 157.5 million euros ($205 million) for construction of the EDRS-C satellite carrying the dual payload for Airbus’s EDRS business and the Avanti telecommunications business. The satellite had been scheduled for launch in late 2016.

Airbus is also counting on a satellite scheduled for launch for Eutelsat of Paris this summer, which includes an EDRS terminal as a hosted payload.

Several of the EU’s Sentinel Earth observation satellites are being equipped with laser terminals, built by Tesat Spacecom of Backnang, Germany, as part of the EDRS program. In November ESA demonstrated a first laser transmission from the Sentinel 1A satellite to an ESA terminal on the Alphabus satellite.

“We are working on a third EDRS satellite, called EDRS-C, which is a joint effort with Airbus and Avanti,” Dordain said here during a press briefing. “We haven’t yet completed the process. We know there will definitely be two laser terminals in geostationary orbit — one is already in operation. The only thing we need to finalize now is whether to go ahead with EDRS-C or not.”

Asked what the sticking point was with completion of EDRS-C, Dordain said:

“The money: This is a PPP [a public-private partnership], so various things need to be settled. We need a solid business case, and to finalize that we need to have the revenue flow set against the cost. These are the details we are working on now.”

In a brief interview, Dordain said the European Commission has yet to sign a Service Level Agreement guaranteeing its purchase from Airbus of EDRS services. Dordain said this SLA was part of the original agreement with Airbus.

An Airbus spokesman on Jan. 16 declined to discuss EDRS in detail but said the company remains confident that it will proceed as planned, with Airbus as its prime contractor and commercial manager.

One European government official, asked to assess EDRS, said: “The lesson here is never get into PPPs.”