Jun 24, 2011

European Data-relay Project Battling Headwinds

Estimated Article Reading Time: 3 min.

LE BOURGET, France — A European project to relay data from low-orbiting Earth observation satellites to ground users via satellites in higher orbit is proving more difficult than expected to organize as government agencies and the private sector debate who manages what risks, European government and industry officials said.

The latest evidence that the European Data Relay System (EDRS) was in trouble came when a planned June 23 contract-signing ceremony for a dedicated EDRS satellite was canceled at the last minute because the signatories had not agreed on terms.

“There has been some trouble between the different companies involved regarding their different contributions,” said Johann-Dietrich Woerner, chairman of the German space agency, DLR. “We and ESA [the European Space Agency] will now be playing the role of moderator. What we want is for Astrium Services to do its job.”

Astrium Services in January was selected as EDRS operator in a public-private partnership with ESA and DLR. The EDRS project is budgeted at just under 400 million euros ($560 million), with 75 percent of the funds coming from ESA and the remaining share from the private sector, led by Astrium Services.

In return for its in-kind contribution of manpower and its role as EDRS operator, Astrium would have exclusive rights to sell EDRS services. While the 19-nation ESA, and the 27-nation European Union’s executive commission, are both expected to have a long-term appetite for EDRS services, neither has committed to any purchases.

Germany has agreed to finance more than half of ESA’s EDRS investment, but only on condition that the program uses a laser-communications terminal developed by Tesat-Spacecom of Backnang, Germany, and that the dedicated EDRS satellite be provided by OHB Technology of Bremen, Germany.

In a June 23 interview here at the Paris air show, Woerner said Germany remains solidly behind EDRS and expected the current problems to be solved in the coming weeks. Any attempt by Astrium Services to reduce its own costs by bypassing OHB and the Small-Geo satellite platform being developed with German government funds, he said, will not be accepted.

ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain has also been actively backing EDRS as an example of ESA’s ability to spur innovative projects through novel financing. ESA’s past public-private partnerships have been in telecommunications, an established market where the market risk assumed by the private sector is well known.

That is not the case with EDRS. In a June 20 briefing here with journalists, Dordain conceded that a pricing model for data-relay services like EDRS does not exist elsewhere and will need to be invented by Astrium Services and the program’s government sponsors.

Dordain said the demand by government agencies, civil and military, for rapid delivery of Earth observation data — “we’re thinking of five minutes rather than an hour or more,” he said — is certain. Europe will have, in the coming years, some 15 Earth observation satellites in orbit as part of the European Commission’s Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program.

“Even if it is not guaranteed, GMES is the anchor tenant for EDRS,” Dordain said. “There is a market, clearly identified.”

But another ESA official said that, at least for now, that tenant is anchored by nothing more than a promise of future interest in EDRS. The official agreed that it has not helped Astrium Services’ attempts to close the financial case for EDRS that the European Commission has been unable to commit to some of the GMES hardware investment it had promised.

In addition, the GMES services budget, which would be a prime candidate for EDRS purchases, has been funded at a very low level up to now, the official said.

Dordain said that EDRS would use a Eutelsat commercial telecommunications satellite to be launched in 2013 to host a laser communications terminal for EDRS. A year or two later, the dedicated EDRS satellite, equipped with an identical terminal, would be launched into an orbit sufficiently distant from the Eutelsat satellite to offer the full benefits of data relay.

Astrium Services Chief Executive Eric Beranger made no mention of EDRS during a June 23 briefing here. Asked about its status, Beranger said EDRS “is a complicated topic.”

“This is a totally new market, with a large number of players,” Beranger said, referring not only to potential EDRS customers but also the government and industry participants involved in developing EDRS. “As you multiply the players involved, it gets even more complex. I know that ESA, OHB, Eutelsat and we are all committed to make it happen. It’s just taking a little longer than we thought to set up the contract vehicle.”

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