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European data relay satellite system to be decided in 2010

Posted: January 22, 2010

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The European Space Agency expects to finalize a proposed data relay satellite system and secure enough funding to build the network this year, senior space officials said.

Credit: ESA
The European Data Relay Satellite program was tentatively approved by the ESA governing council in 2008, but the space agency was tasked with resolving unanswered questions about the system and raising more money for the project before receiving the final go-ahead.

Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA's director general, said officials expect to consolidate the program this year.

"Why have we waited until 2010? That's quite simply because we are in the process of developing the EDRS system working together with a private operator," Dordain said.

The EDRS network would include two communications payloads mounted on commercial satellites and at least one dedicated spacecraft. The platforms would be spread around the world in geosynchronous orbit to provide near-global coverage for satellites at lower altitudes.

The first user for the EDRS satellites would be the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security program, including the planned Sentinel Earth observation spacecraft.

Future military spacecraft from European member nations could also utilize the EDRS system.

EDRS platforms would relay data from satellites in low Earth orbit directly to ground stations, greatly reducing the time needed to downlink imagery. Current European satellites must wait until passing over communications sites, sometimes delaying data recovery for several hours.

ESA already operates the Artemis laser communications satellite, a testbed for data relay technologies and precursor to the EDRS project. Artemis is expected to continuing working untl 2013, when the first EDRS spacecraft would be launched.

"Europe is the only space power that lacks a data relay capability," Dordain said. "The requirements for navigation, environmental monitoring and security need this ability, and there is solid interest in building this system."

NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System, in orbit since 1983, is a model for ESA's satellite communications ambitions, although Europe hopes to develop EDRS at a much lower cost.

"What we have to do is select the private operator who will be our partner in the EDRS program," Dordain said. "The selection process always takes a certain amount of time, but this selection will be finalized at the end of June."

Space officials plan to implement the EDRS program as a public-private partnership under the management of an industrial partner.

"It will be a strategic European network in the sky that can be be further enhanced with new capabilities in the future," said Magali Vaissiere, ESA's director of telecommunications and integrated applications.

Astrium, Eutelsat and Telespazio are competing for the job. ESA will release a request for formal proposals in February before making the final decision on an operator in June.

Dordain expects the selection of a partner in the project will compel ESA member states to provide at least another 60 million euros, or $85 million, to EDRS by September.

A contract signing would follow in November, assuming everything falls into place in time, Dordain said.