Three-way Agreement Extends EDRS Commitment Beyond 2020

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MUNICH — The European Commission, the European Space Agency and Airbus Defence and Space have reached agreement on funding and management of a laser data-relay system after months of wrangling, commission and ESA officials said Feb. 24.

Disagreement over roles and obligations that had strained relations between ESA and the commission, which is ESA’s biggest customer, were resolved with a binding agreement, signed Feb. 20, that commits Airbus to manage the system well beyond the limits of the commission’s current 2014-2020 budget, officials said.

“It was a very complicated series of agreements that evolved every two or three days, but all the problems are now solved and the agreement is signed," Reinhard Schulte-Braucks
“It was a very complicated series of agreements that evolved every two or three days, but all the problems are now solved and the agreement is signed,” Reinhard Schulte-Braucks, head of infrastructure for the Copernicus program, said. Credit: ESA/P. Sebirot

“We now have a signed Service Level Agreement for EDRS,” the European Data Relay System, said Reinhard Schulte-Braucks, head of infrastructure for the 28-nation commission’s Copernicus program. “It was a very complicated series of agreements that evolved every two or three days, but all the problems are now solved and the agreement is signed.”

Volker Liebig, director of Earth observation for the 21-nation ESA, confirmed that the EDRS system is now on firm contractual ground, with the commission being anchor customer for a commercial service to be managed by Airbus.

Copernicus is the commission’s seven-year environment-monitoring program budgeted at nearly 4.3 billion euros ($5.75 billion). Copernicus’ key orbital infrastructure is a series of satellites called Sentinels, designed to fly two at a time. Two of the Sentinel series, Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2, will carry laser communications terminals for EDRS.

The laser terminals, built by Tesat Spacecom of Backnang, Germany, will relay terabytes of the low-orbiting Sentinel satellites’ radar and optical data to at least two satellites in geostationary orbit fitted with similar terminals.

With the commission as reference customer, Airbus will now seek other customers around the world, and more importantly will seek a third geostationary-orbiting telecommunications satellite over the Pacific Ocean region to give EDRS a global reach.

Two geostationary nodes for EDRS have been confirmed, on telecommunications satellites owned by Eutelsat of Paris and Avanti of London.

Commission officials had complained privately that ESA had sprung the EDRS commitment on them without much discussion and that ESA had penciled in an annual commission contribution that was far beyond the commission’s likely use of EDRS. The commission’s presumed contribution for at least five years was embedded in the EDRS contract that Airbus signed with ESA. Airbus had committed to spending about 130 million of its own funds for EDRS, including paying a share of an EDRS-equipped satellite.

It will be the company’s job to build the EDRS business model starting with the commission’s funding and nothing else. No equivalent service has been developed.

The commission balked at paying the amount presumed by ESA and Airbus, setting the stage for months of negotiations that highlighted the sharp differences in organizational culture between the commission and ESA.

When ESA governments in December declined to budget sufficient money to cover the missing amount, it was left to the commission and the agency to restructure the agreement.

Schulte-Braucks declined to specify the commission’s financial commitment, saying that part of the EDRS agreement with ESA and Airbus extends well beyond 2020, when the current commission budget cycle ends. He said one new element of the EDRS agreement is a joint ESA-commission-Airbus steering committee to oversee EDRS.

“We wanted to be involved in the management of the system,” Schulte-Braucks said here on the sidelines of a briefing on the Sentinel-2A optical and infrared satellite, which carries an EDRS terminal and is scheduled to be launched in June. “We also wanted the assurance of some continuity of the program beyond 2020.”

For the period 2015-2020, he said, the commission has agreed to “a bit less than 100 million euros” in financing, including an investment in the EDRS ground infrastructure in addition to a set amount of EDRS-delivered Sentinel data.

Sentinel 2a
Sentinel-2A. Credit: ESA

EDRS permits users of Sentinel environment monitoring data to receive imagery much more quickly than the traditional reliance on Earth stations under the satellites’ orbital path.

The question for some at the commission is how much demand there will be for data delivery at these gigabits-per-second speeds afforded by optical links between the Sentinel satellites and a geostationary-orbiting satellite, and the Ka-band downlink to ground users.

The Sentinel-2A satellite, for example, carries an X-band mission data transmission system capable of operating at 520 megabits per second, and a mass memory capable of storing 6 terabits of data. The EDRS terminal, program officials said, is an interesting complementary means of data transmission, but not critical.

For the Sentinel-1 series of radar satellites, however — Sentinel-1A is in orbit, and the second is under construction — EDRS will show its full value, Liebig said.