Spot Image Not Counting on French Government Support

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WAShINGTON — The French government has made no promise that it will help finance in any way the Spot 6 and Spot 7 Earth observation satellites now under construction, Astrium Services Chief Executive Eric Beranger said March 15.

Astrium officials have estimated that the two satellites together will cost around 300 million euros ($410 million). Both are under construction and viewed as crucial for Spot Image, the Astrium-owned Earth observation image and services provider, based in Toulouse, France.

The French space agency, CNES, has said that financial backing for Spot 6 and Spot 7 is one of the options for spending some 750 million euros to be made available for space projects under a multibillion-euro French government bond issue. But details on how the bond proceeds will be spent, and when, remain unclear.

“I am not aware that the French government has any intention to help us on Spot 6 and 7,” Beranger said.

Astrium Services, part of the Astrium space-hardware and services company owned by Europe’s EADS aerospace giant, has a broad portfolio that includes Astrium’s optical and radar Earth observation businesses. In addition to Spot Image, the company owns Infoterra of Germany, which markets products from the TerraSAR-X radar satellite.

In the next year, Astrium will have access to three more satellites. The TanDem-X satellite, which like TerraSAR-X was co-financed by Astrium and the German government, is scheduled for launch this year. Two French government-financed high-resolution Pleiades satellites are scheduled for launch late this year or early in 2011.

Unlike its U.S. competitors in Earth observation, GeoEye and DigitalGlobe, Astrium Services has been unable to forge long-term imagery-purchase agreements with governments that would guarantee a revenue stream. GeoEye and DigitalGlobe in the past have counted on their principal customer, the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), to co-finance the construction of their satellites in addition to entering into multiyear imagery-purchase agreements. But NGA has recently signaled that this model may be changing to force the private sector to shoulder more of the financial risk of new satellite development projects.

The French government has financed all five Spot satellites launched since 1986 but has apparently decided that Spot Image, whose annual revenue exceeds 100 million euros, should now be weaned from government support.