Airbus and the French Defense Ministry share access to the two Pleaides high-resolution optical satellites, whose native 70-centimeter ground sampling distance can be sharpened to 50 centimeters through resampling. Airbus’s main competitor, DigitalGlobe of the United States, is selling 30-centimeter imagery. Airbus is spending more than $540 million on four 30-centimeter-resolution satellites to launch in 2020 or 2021. The European Commission may turn out to be a prime customer. The Pleiades image above shows a riding club in Pyongyang, North Korea. Credit: CNES/Airbus
BRUSSELS — The European Commission, moving more sure-footedly into the realm of space-based defense and security, has tentatively planned to adopt the policy of the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) in signing multi-year contracts for high-resolution satellite imagery, a senior commission official said.
Philippe Brunet, a director at the commissions DG-Grow directorate on industry and entrepreneurship, said the commission would contract with one or more companies that own satellite infrastructure to offset the companies’ development and operations costs.
Airbus’s $540 million, four-satellite investment
Brunet’s remarks here Jan. 25 at the 9th European Space Policy conference, came just a day after Airbus Defence and Space confirmed its intention to spend more than 500 million euros ($540 million) to build and launch a constellation of four 30-centimeter-resolution optical Earth observation satellites in 2020 or 2021.
Airbus currently has no government financial support for its system, although it has benefited from technology development at the French space agency, CNES, in high-resolution sensors.
With an in-service date in 2021 or later — project of this kind typically run at least a year late relative to their initial timetables — the Airbus project would be well-placed to benefit from the commission’s program.
Airbus’s move was made all but mandatory once its biggest competitor, DigitalGlobe of the United States, won U.S. government approval to sell 30-centimeter-resolution imagery on the commercial market.
DigitalGlobe more recently has entered a partnership with Saudi Arabian government affiliates for a constellation of six satellites with sub-1-meter resolution but likely less sharp than DigitalGlobe’s 30-centimeter satellites.
Adding a constellation to its portfolio will give DigitalGlobe a “tip and cue” capability, with the smaller constellation imaging more territory more frequently to inform the higher-resolution satellites of any objects of interest. The larger satellites then would be programmed to take a closer look.
DigitalGlobe’s biggest customer is NGA, which has signed a contract, called NextView, that while technically a series of one-year contracts is a de facto 10-year agreement, as long as DigitalGlobe meets the contract’s service requirements.
A 7-year service-level agreement foreseen
That is what Brunet wants to do with the European Commission’s next seven-year financing program, to start in 2021.
“We would like to have high-precision products with revisit times certainly less than one day,” Brunet said. “The volume of data that [EU policies] would demand would not justify the launch of three or four or five satellites. What we are thinking of is a service contract with several operators.
“We would have access to satellite tasking to get the information we want, when we want it. Because we would use the infrastructure, we would finance a pro rata share of the development and maintenance of the infrastructure,” Brunet said. “We would have a contract covering seven years that could help industry develop at least part of the constellation.”
Brunet said European maritime authorities, the EU external-action service and the European Satellite Center operating carrying out EU security and defense policy would all be customers.
European Union officials have complained in the past that countries with their own high-resolution optical and radar reconnaissance satellites, notably Germany and France, have been reluctant to share their data, citing security classifications, or have agreed but charged high prices.
That has driven the satellite center to seek imagery on the commercial market, from DigitalGlobe and others.
Airbus: We won’t compete with EU’s Copernicus
Evert Dudok, executive vice president and head of communication, intelligence and security at Airbus Defence and Space, said Jan. 24 that the Airbus constellation would not compete with the EU’s Copernicus Earth observation satellites, which have far lower ground sampling distances and are used for environmental and disaster mitigation purposes.
How far Copernicus would move into the defense and security realm has been a long debate inside the EU. Some EU governments continue to insist on maintaining a wall between civil and defense/security applications, despite the technology’s inherent dual-use nature.
Dudok said the Airbus constellation would employ optical laser communications terminals to be able to send back data to users more quickly by relaying the imagery to the ground via one of a planned three satellites in geostationary orbit.