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— Eutelsat’s investment in OneWeb may be incompatible with continued participation in the European Union’s proposed satellite broadband constellation, an EU official warned.
Eutelsat is part of an industry consortium that received a study contract from the European Commission in December 2020 to examine the feasibility of a European satellite constellation to provide secure communications and broadband services, particularly for underserved parts of Europe. The contract, which includes a wide range of European space and telecommunications companies, is worth 7.1 million euros ($8.7 million) and will last a year.
Eutelsat, though, is also taking investing in OneWeb, the broadband constellation that emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year after being acquired by the British government and Indian telecommunications company Bharti Global. Eutelsat announced April 27 it was acquiring a 24% stake in OneWeb for $550 million.
Thierry Breton, the EU commissioner whose portfolio includes space, suggested in a call with reporters May 24 that Eutelsat’s OneWeb stake may pose a conflict of interest. “Personally, I do not see how, structurally and in governance, an entity can have stakes in two competing projects,” he said when asked about Eutelsat’s investment in OneWeb.
He said he did not oppose, in general, Eutelsat’s investment in OneWeb. “They are free to do it, of course. I don’t want to prevent it,” he said. “However, we took a good note of the decision of Eutelsat to invest into a project in direct competition with the European initiative that we’re working on.”
He emphasized the importance of the satellite communications project to the “strategic autonomy” of Europe. “It is therefore important to preserve the interests of the Union,” he said, including reconsidering Eutelsat’s continued participation in the project.
Eutelsat, in comments last week after a conference session about the status of EU constellation study, argued that the two projects are not in conflict with each other, since the EU effort is focused more on the needs of European institutions, while OneWeb is doing business with companies and governments worldwide.
Breton suggested he was unhappy with the industry group’s progress on the satellite communications study. “To tell you the truth, it was very interesting, it was important, but not too innovative,” he said of the first results from that effort. He said the EU will commission a second study involving smaller businesses and startups, rather that the larger companies involved in the first one. They will provide a report within two months. “My dream will be to be able to go on vacation with this new study.”
The briefing was linked to Breton’s visit to the offices of the EU Agency for the Space Programme (EUSPA), the former European Agency for Global Navigation Satellite Systems that was rebranded, with an expanded mandate, earlier this year. EUSPA’s focus will expand beyond the Galileo satellite navigation program to include the Copernicus series of Earth observation satellites as well as satellite communications and space situational awareness.
The creation of EUSPA led some in the European space community to believe the EU was trying to create a competitor to the European Space Agency, an independent organization outside the EU umbrella. Both the EU and ESA have worked to clarify that EUSPA will carry out different roles than ESA, focusing more on operations than research and development.
“EUSPA is more focused, if I may say so, on exploitation of Galileo,” he said, and later with Copernicus. “ESA is more of the design architect for the future generation of our satellites.”
The EU and ESA are still finalizing what’s known as the Financial Framework Partnership Agreement that governs the roles and responsibilities of the two nations as they work on joint projects like Copernicus and Galileo. Breton said those negotiations are nearly complete, with a goal of completing it by June 22.
“I’m very happy with the cooperation that we have with the new director general of ESA,” he said, referring to Josef Aschbacher, who took over the job in March.
At the direction of the Biden Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS) is adopting a portfolio approach.
“For us that means not just launching one satellite at a time and building that satellite really well, but seeing how all the systems work together,” Stephen Volz, Assistant Administrator for NOAA NESDIS, said May 25 during a Space Foundation webinar. When NOAA considers obtaining data from geostationary orbit, for example, the agency will consider European and Asian satellite constellations “to see how we can bring those together to have the best mix and match of instruments and observations in the coming years,” he added.
Similarly, in low Earth orbit, NOAA is preparing for “a significant and fundamental change” in its approach to gathering data “by taking advantage of that proliferation of capable observing systems that are being launched by many partners in the public domain and by making best use of all of those different observations,” Volz said.
Those partners include the European Space Agency, Eumetsat, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, NASA and the U.S. Space Force.
At the same time, NOAA is making significant investments its next generation of Earth-observing satellites as well as ground and IT systems to transfer data and move them into the cloud. Cloud service providers are helping NOAA handle the growing volume of data much more economically and efficiently than it could on its own, Volz said.
NOAA’s future Earth-observing satellite architecture will be far different from the current one, which includes the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R) Series and the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS).
Current plans call for the GOES-R follow-on, called Geostationary and Extended Observations, to include five instruments: a sophisticated imager and lightning mapper like its predecessors in addition to sensors to monitor atmosphere composition and ocean color ocean as well as a hyperspectral infrared sounder.
At one time, NOAA considered adding a satellite in a highly-elliptical Tundra orbit to obtain persistent observation of polar regions to its future geostationary satellite constellation. While monitoring the Arctic remains important for deciphering weather patterns and climate monitoring, NOAA is working with the Canadian Space Agency and European partners to determine the best approach for an Arctic Observing Mission.
“You can do that with a satellite in a highly elliptical orbit slowly drifting over the poles so you get staring or you can do that with proliferation from low Earth orbit,” Volz said. “Think about a constellation of 20 smallsats, which all cover the poles. You stitch those together and you have a pretty persistent imagery approach for the poles.”
Government agencies around the world are developing and launching small satellites for proliferated low-Earth orbit constellations.
The U.S. Space Force, ESA, Eumetsat and NASA are pioneers in efforts to compare the benefits of data gathered by constellations of small satellites making common measurements with large satellites capable of observing wider swaths, Volz said.
The small satellite constellations “allow for flexibilities in instrumentation and in greater coverage than we have with the old approach,” Volz said. “We’re working with our partners to see what they’re learning, but also potentially to use that same approach for our low Earth orbit satellites in the next generation.”
NOAA also seeks to profit from the work of commercial partners. NESDIS may be able to take advantage, for example, of the investment SpaceX is making in its Starlink broadband constellation.
“We focus on the instruments and the measurements,” Volz said. By marrying NOAA instruments with commercial satellite constellations, the agency may identify “a more efficient approach” to making observations in low Earth orbit, he added.
During the webinar, Volz also discussed NOAA’s Commercial Weather Data Pilot, an initiative to identify and purchase promising datasets. NOAA awarded indefinite delivery-indefinite quantity contracts in November to GeoOptics and Spire Global. GeoOptics won a follow-on contract for data delivery.
“We are now ingesting those data operationally into our services, right alongside our own COSMIC-2 data and our partner access radio occultation data into our models and into our data systems for enhancement of our weather forecasts,” Volz said. “We expect to continue this into the future. Spire and GeoOptics are both under contract and we will issue additional delivery orders beyond this current one to buy more data.”
At the same time, NOAA is looking for additional commercial datasets to support its mission.
“So far we haven’t identified any that are at the same level that radio occupation was several years ago, although we’re continuously working with the community to identify them,” Volz said.