Destroying the satellite industry one free image at the time

EU and ESA with their Copernicus program is an actor dumping free images into the market using satellites that have been fully paid for by the tax payer.

This is done with the well honed intention, to foster the down stream market but consequently it is destroying the (commercial) opportunities of the satellite industry one free image at a time.

Meet the greatest EO system of the world

In a comment to Commissioner Bretons article on the future of European Space I called out the Copernicus program as “killing commercial initiative in the upstream”.

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My comment was met with disaproval by another commenter, Mr. Andreas Lindenthal, head of business operations space systems at Airbus defense and space. Mr. Lindenthal argued that:

The Copernicus system […] [is] the best performing system for the constant measuring of the condition of our planet Earth […]. [It] has been managed by ESA much more efficiently than any other system worldwide. Mr. Lindenthal, Airbus Defense and Space

Mr. Lindenthal went on to classify that any potentially negative side effects, if they indeed exist, would be a acceptable price to pay for such a formidable system.

[…] the principle of free data access […] is a story of success which is acknowledged worldwide. If […] commercial initiatives are suffering in this approach it might be traded against the benefits […] Mr. Lindenthal, Airbus Defense and Space

Collateral Damage

What we can learn from above statement is that in the eyes of the #olspace industry any commercial activity that suffers from the successful Copernicus and other similar programs is little more than collateral damage. Instead of throwing a blanket statement that end ends justify the means we should look at what the negative results really are.

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Upstream – Satellite Manufacturers

There is little doubt that the upstream, those who are manufacturing satellites are getting the sticky end of the stick. Yes, they can get into the ESA world and build satellites but no more than this. There are very few satellite operators that would buy your system because they don’t know whether thanks to Copernicus free images the market that they want to serve actually exists.

Midstream – Satellite Operators

Imagining yourself to build up an EO system to provide data to the down steam, are you sure that Copernicus won’t swoop in later on and render your investment useless? And to whom do you sell your data to? The down stream, thanks to Copernicus is used to get it for free? There is another option: the chance to sell your data directly to Copernicus as contribution mission. Oh what sweet poison this is, you gain one customer and lose all other as Copernicus will distribute the data once again free to all.


Surely, downstream who get data for free from Copernicus must be the winners here. Well think again. Yes, those data that is available from the Sentinels is for free but maybe – just maybe, you need other data. Then suddenly you find yourself in a situation that nobody wants to build such a system because of of the risk of being made obsolete afterwards if Copernicus would take interest later on.

Tax Payer

This is an obvious one, isn’t it? Public money is used to build up a system whose data is provided for free to institutions who down stream generate business and reap the profits with it. Wouldn’t it be good if at some point the wholee thing is self sustaining? Well, as long as we run Copernicus in the same way we do now, that won’t happen. Even with government run systems like the post office, you pay for the stamps which in turn make the system largely self supporting. For space however, we won’t have that option. Not for as long as we give away the data for free.

Cui bono – Who benefits from it?

Since there is such a big difference in view points towards the Copernicus program we should have a look on who benefits from it being run the way it is:

Large Space Companies

The Sentinel satellites are complex power houses. They have a mass between 900kg to 3500kg and large demanding payloads. The question is whether they are the right tool or not to achieved what needs to be done is open to debate. I would however like to point out that in recent years two trends can be observed in more commercially driven environments: large platforms have been replaced by midsized ones (without apparent loss of fuctionality) and single satellites have been replaced by constellations. In Copernicus on the other hand it is however a matter of fact that under the chairmanship of the European Space Agency all Sentinel satellites have been built as large systems by just two companies as system primes: Thales Alenia Space and Airbus Defense and Space.

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Without a doubt such an arrangement is beneficial those involved and that they would defend such an agreement tooth and nails. Whether it is beneficial to the rest of the industry or society at large is doubtful.

European Space Agency

The European Space Agency (ESA) has championed space since its inception in 1975. It fosters pan european collaboration in space which in itself is a praiseworthy act. The problem is that if your only tool is a hammer then every problem looks like a nail. The complexity of rules that ESA has devised to solve equally complex problems is at a loss when trying to do something simple. Consequently every mission, even repeat ones that only deliver a service end up in an act of pushing boundaries. Ideally however, the agency would understand that what is required is the equivalent of a bus driver – a service to society – done in the simplest and cost efficient way possible. Looking at what the Agency has delivered and how even small satellites end up with really inflated prices makes me doubt that they actually can.

Can we do better?

What we can see is that the tandem: space agency plus large system integrator always creates similar looking satellites.

Sentinel satellites in summary:

100-200MEUR sticker price, 1000kg mass

comes in pairs, built by Large Space Company (LSI)

I would likely be called out as doing unfair comparisons – again, that is why we will take a look at the developments that very same large system integrators have done outside of the Copernicus progam. It is striking how in the last 10-15 years, the same capabilities were achieved first by 1000+kg large satellites and today by 150-250kg mini satellites. There more examples for each of the satellite classes from other companies but I feel the point is better made to show what these companies are capable of when working outside the Copernicus framework.

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Note: Medium Resolution = <5m GSD & >50km swath, VHR <70cm GSD, Radar <1m GSD, Hyperspectral 30m GSD, 200 channels VNIR & SWIR

Despite above examples we still get those 100MEUR, 1 tonne satellites for Copernicus and in my eyes this begs the question: is that really because the task demands it or is that because it in the frame work innovation does not pay. Maybe for some reason it is this class of satellites that both ESA and the LSI as a tandem like to build? If that is the case which incentive has society to keep this marriage going?

Calling for a Commercial Space Act

Since those who run the game will not freely step aside and since there are conflicting positions between those embroiled in the state sponsered and agency run flavor of space and those who are looking to do something more commercial.

I therefore call for the law makers at the EU commission and the national parliarments to draw the line. Put into force a commercial space act which limits the actions of the space agencies to things where society benefits from their experience: the final frontier, exploration (crewed and robotic), science and astronomy but bar them use the public funds to trample commercial space actors.

At the very least it should restricted to dump products and services paid for by public money into the market. Don’t worry you will still be able to support SME that are trying to build new services but make it clear that this is a subsidy. One that primes the pump but not one that they can run with forever. After establishing themselves and making good money there should be a price. Make that price clear.

Even the needs of the EU could easily be met. Define what you need and define a price. This set of data, this quantity, this price. How that data is being generated should be of secondary nature, as long as you buy it under these set conditions you can be an anchor customer.

Under these rules this market would be interesting to invest in. If you put out the call for the data & services, not for the satellites a tandem of ESA and LSI could still be offering a Sentinel to do the task. You just have to pay them afterwards for the data and not for building satellite.

I am confident that you would see a competition of many interesting ideas. It may be just a hunch but I have the feeling most of them would not look like Sentinels.

Concluding Remarks

If we as society ever want to come to a point where the space industry is self sustaining the disconnect between the upstream and the downstream needs to end.

In my eyes it is best be done when we quantify the value of the product delivered. Putting a sticker price to our services would make us subject to a proper commercial valuation. A healthy pressure to deliver better, more bang for the buck. It is time that this thought arrives in the space industry, too.

How can you help:

This text is part of a series of articles in which the author sets the framework to start a discussion about the wrongs of the space industry. If you have experienced similar things, leave a comment. Other views and opinions are very welcome, too, as they may present a way forward. Please be kind to each other.


The author’s views are his own do not represent the views of his company Berlin Space Technologies.






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