Let’s stick with what we know…

This month’s topic is “fear!!1!” and how it dominates decisions in the space industry. In this bonus article we will look into one of these irrational choices.

Let’s explore how the EC gave a mission to ESA that would have better be implemented directly by industry. And how ESA chose a satellite platform which is quite literally unqualified for any of the programatic requirements of the mission and yet landed on top.

Welcome to #SpaceDoneWrong – today the wonderful world of In Orbit Demonstration.


Space is a very risk averse environment many new products have the problem of “has not flown – will not fly”. In short this means that because of the fear of mission failure many new and ground breaking technologies often are stuck on the ground and require dedicated in orbit demonstration missions to prove them before usage in an actual mission. To cater to this need space agencies have introduced IOD missions to allow those potentially disruptive technologies a shot at the stars. There are however also a growing number of commercial offers in this market segment.

Why European Commission

Space is part of the key elements of the European Unions innovation domains. As such it is an integral part of Horizon 2020 and its successor program Horizon Europe

Horizon 2020, a majestic Logo to indicate one of the key R&D programs of the European Commission.

In 2015 the European Commission (EC) conducted a program to establish how an in orbit demonstration service could be implemented in the most productive manner.

At this initial stage of Horizon 2020, studies are needed to help define the envelope and the requirements for the implementation of affordable missions of IOD/IOV

Four studies were run in parallel (Study 1Study 2Study 3Study 4). They were all run by consortia of European space companies and broadly came to the same conclusion:

  1. Plenty of experiments and new technologies require a flight opportunity
  2. This could and should be done by the industry (consortium)

At least that is what I imagine was written in these study reports. I know most of the companies and institutions that were involved in the IOD studies and I have difficulties to imagine that they would propose, this should be run by a space agency.

Instead I imagine four outline proposals from these consortia presenting their ideas on how to implement a better, faster and cheaper solution to the “chicken and egg problem” than the government missions from the decade earlier.

So how did we get from the recommendation of doing an commercial IOD service to an Agency run IOD program? Lets have a look!

So why ESA?

The original mission statement of the EC asked for an affordable (potentially commercial) IOD service. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line it was hijacked by the European Space Agency. They convinced the European Commission (EC) that this IOD service would best be implemented under their wings. The question is why did the EC agreed to this despite having 4 studies suggesting something else?

ESA flag in the foreground, EU flag in the background

I can only imagine that this discussion was driven by some fearmongering on the side of the agency; something along the lines of:

ESA: “if you have a commercial IOD service, how do you make sure it actually works?”

EC: “Mhmm… but I want a service, how will you make sure that there will be one”

ESA: “Well, we will take them under our wings and make sure it will be a success!

What did they ask for?

Please note: the following is lifted from the statement of work of the ESA tender AO/1-10419/20/NL/DB IOD/IOV Project 1 – Element 1.

The following won’t go into the technical details of the tender or the IOD experiments. It just touches which from an outside view seem to be top-level programmatic requirements:

“the IOD/IOV Programme should provide a regular and cost-effective solution for access to space […] based on European solutions.”

The focus was on a low cost solution to allow regular launch intervals. In actual numbers the entire first mission had a budget of 16 MEUR for launch of 13 IOD experiments.

“As launch opportunities may be available as from end 2022 […]”

With the tender published in July 2020 this indicates <24 month from kick-off to launch.

“qualified and flight proven Carrier(s) will best match the objectives of this project […]”

Consequently a solution with high maturity, preferably either fully qualified (required) or even flight proven (desired).

“to the maximum extent based on existing qualified hardware and software from system down to unit level […]”

To really drive home this point the invitation to tender goes to iterate that mostly existing hardware on all levels shall be used. Development – if ever – shall be limited.

And the winner is:

After due deliberation ESA selected the following as the best solution to this problem:

A Platform still under development

With a lead-time >30month

With many new avionics

If that would not be worse enough…

From a manufacturer that

never delivered faster than 4 years

and never below 20MEUR*

If you are at a loss, then yes its the same to me, too.

*) inflation adjusted to 2021

Enter the P200 Platform from Qinetiq

Like its predecessors the 1st generation Proba satellites, the P200 will undoubtedly be a technological marvel. However, it is also equally clear that the platform is not suited for the programmatic requirements that were defined by EC and ESA for IOD mission:

The problem of cost and schedule

None of the previous Proba missions conducted by the selected supplier was done anywhere close to the requirements of this IOD mission. The fastest that I was able to find was Proba 1 Phase C/D was done in 3.5 years (kick-off February 1998, Launch October 2001) with substantial developments during Phase A/B since 1996. Subsequent Proba satellites were even slower. It is not quite understandable how the evaluation board (17 people no less) can believe this satellite will be any different. If you would take the requirement to launch something at the end of 2022 serious this should have led to disqualification of the bid.

All previous Proba satellites from the supplier took more than 4 years from PDR to launch readiness. A 2 year schedule for the current project is highly doubtful.

Secondly, the budget of 16MEUR is simply not sufficient for a Proba type mission. This can mean one of several things: either Qinetiq is receiving extra money (e.g. via Belgium national funds) or that the supplier has willfully quoted too low in hope of playing the game of CCN’s . At least from my perspective both of these options would be a gross violation of the tender rules and should have immediately led to a disqualification of the bid.

All previous Proba satellites cost more than what was quoted for EC/ESA IOD. That Qinetiq can fit a full P200 which is twice as large and the management of 13 payloads into the mission budget is highly doubtful.

In summary, the cost is too high, the schedule too long and since I only know the public statements and not the proposal itself I can only assume that ESA overlooked these facts in fear of having to take a different solution which in their eyes would pose too much risk.

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Note: Proba cost figures are from the literature and are not adjusted for inflation.

Independent of the fact that the platform seems to be unsuited for the missions on all top level elements, there are additional things at play that need further attention.

More experiments per satellite, longer wait time per experiment

Let’s remember that the EC / ESA IOD mission should be a precursor for a regular IOD service. The 14 experiments that the EU had collected and of which 13 are inside the element 1 represent a big chunk of IOD payloads. It is not entirely clear to me whether it would be possible to find these many payloads every year.

If you put all experiments on one satellite then the fastest (#46) need to wait almost 1.5 years for the slowest (#8 & #14)!

In addition, when you collect IOD experiments over multiple years or bundle experiments with diverting schedules onto one carrier, then the fastest experiment has to wait for the slowest. The more experiments and the more spread out the worse it will get. At 200kg and 70kg payload the P200 platform is probably factor 2-3 too big to be an effective and versatile IOD carrier. Two or three separate Proba class satellites would have been better.

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As you can see the 13 experiments of Element 3 fall into three categories:

  • Fast Experiments: Group A (available 7-9 month after project kick-off)
  • Medium Experiments: Group B (available 12 month after project kick-off)
  • Slow Experiments: Group C (available 15-24 month after project kick-off)

Instead of squeezing them onto one carrier it makes sense to distribute them across multiple carriers. For example along the lines of groups A, B and C.

Its not a good idea to put all the eggs in one basket

More IOD experiments per satellite (& launch) mean more risk. The carrier may fail or a faulty not contained experiment malfunction could mean the end of the carrier. The rocket is a risk, too. Consider that Vega C is the primary candidate for launching the EC/ESA IOD carrier and that this rocket had a failure rate of almost 50% in the last 3 years. So there are actually many reasons why one would also not want to put too many eggs in one basket.

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Anybody interested in herding cats?

The IOD experiments all share the resources of their carrier satellite. More often than not the requirements of the experiments are incompatible with each other. This problem gets worse the more payloads are stuck on one carrier. From an operative point of view a single payload carrier would be best unfortunately not cost effective as each mission would rack up its own fixed cost. Bundling all of them in one big platform may be cheaper per experiments but at some point the limitations become unacceptable like the task of herding cats.

One experiment per satellite is to expensive

All of them on one satellite is herding cats

The optimum never in the extreme.

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Now that we have established that this really does not seem such a terribly good idea, one question remains:

How did it come to this?

It is important to remember that EC/ESA IOD Element 01 is already the second iteration of this tender. The original study of the EC foresaw 2-3 micro / mini satellites carrying 14 experiments. These satellites could either be described as 3 satellites of the original Proba class (~100kg) or two satellites, one Proba type satellite and one bigger P200 (~200kg) type satellite. So either 5 or 7 experiments per satellite. Not a bad number. For all of these satellites a total budget of 25MEUR was foreseen.

Depending on how you look at it, this could either be far too much money or far too little. Far too much money it would be for almost anyone outside the ESA context. I talked to some colleagues from other European micro satellite manufacturer and we agreed that one IOD micro satellite would probably cost between 2-5 MEUR depending on complexity.

25 MEUR to build 3 micro satellites

that is either too little (old space)

or way too much money (new space)

On the other hand none ESA of the 100kg micro (let alone mini) satellite has ever had a sticker price of <20MEUR (when inflation adjusted to 2021). To get 2-3 satellites in that budget probably seemed rather impossible. Consequently, at least from what I have heard, none of the old guard actually submitted a bid.

The little bird tells me none of the usual suspects offered in the first round.

And none of the newspace offers were to ESA’s liking.

At the end of the first round ESA was thus stuck between a rock and a hard place. Either would they accept one of the companies outside their traditional reach which offered lower prices but according to the evaluation process are below threshold for acceptance or they would have to retract and re-issue the tender. ESA decided for the latter.

Splitting the tender into two makes sense from a schedule perspective.

Unfortunately it is also the root cause why we now have an all eggs in one basket situation

In the second round the 14 experiments (almost identical to the first round) were split over two missions (Element 01 and Element 02). This was according to ESA due to the fact that Experiment 1 was very complex and had a schedule that foresaw delivery much later than 24 month.

Unfortunately that also removed flexibility from the IOD planning as now 13 experiment are stuck with roughly 2/3 of the 25MEUR budget. This is the root cause why we ended up in a situation in which we have an IOD carrier for Element 1 that makes absolutely no sense.

Alternatives or lack thereof.

One wonders, are there no alternatives. I mean SSTL has done their UK demosat for 6 million GBP in 2014 and if you ignore the massive market distorting subsidies towards the Airbus Bartolomeo platform on ISS then this could be a second alternative to do the job within the budget at hand. Alas having the European commission bankrolling the mission also comes with some downsides.

A victim of Brexit – SSTL X50

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Technically I have no doubt that 2-3 of the X50 platform of SSTL (~5MEUR per platform) would have made excellent IOD carriers. The company also has decades of experience and knows how to work with ESA. Unfortunately, thanks to Brexit SSTL is no longer part of the EU and thus disqualifies itself by being a not European solution.

No European Access to ISS – Airbus Bartolomeo

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The Bartolomeo Platform has similar issues. While the platform itself is European, after the end of the ATV program no European launcher reaches the ISS. This violates the core requirement of strategic European independence coined as “European Solution”. Therefore Airbus Bartolomeo was also out of the race, too.

What could be done different?

Suggested administrative / programmatic changes

Well first of all, dear European Commission. Don’t give future IOD contracts to ESA.

ESA is good for managing cutting edge exploratory interplanetary missions or the cornerstone science mission. However, the same way you won’t buy a compact mini from Rolls Royce you don’t go to ESA for something simple as an IOD mission. With all their rules and overheads you are lucky if you get away with something 3x as expensive.

If you need a car to do the groceries you don’t order it through Rolls Royce.

A similar thought process should apply simple space missions like IOD.

As an alternative I suggest to trust the European industry to come up with a solution. That the industry is capable to do so should have been apparent already with the 4 studies that you conducted.

You made 4 studies to figure out how to do IOD. All of them in the hands of industry and yet you give the program to ESA. Why?

I know of various companies that have active commercial IOD programs ready or in their drawers waiting for an opportunity.

Trust the European space industry.

The time is ripe for a solution outside ESA.

IOD could be a sustainable business case.

A good intermediary step would be to request capacity. Instead of asking ESA to manage and oversee the design and construction of the satellites, a more hands-off approach is in order. You have 14 experiments you want to fly, great. Chuck them into useful bundles and make industry bid for bringing them into space. Negotiate for an industry wide competition based on a simple benchmark – say price per kg IOD mass. Without the agency overheads but with EC as anchor customer it would be possible to establish a long term sustainable industrial business case.

Suggested technical changes

Ok, ESA you convince the EC to have the IOD mission under your wings. Lets roll with that. You are a proud parent of the European space industry and want them to grow. As any parent you need to learn to let go. Set a goal and see how the industry implements it.

Even if you don’t want to give them that much freedom yet (fear of mission failure) there would have been plenty of ways to do it differently. For example, if you are afraid of giving a 16MEUR budget to a newcomer, split it up into three until you come to an amount that you are willing to give the company free reign.

Here is an example of what could have been done:

  • take a European, flight proven and low cost micro satellite bus (<5MEUR)
  • group all experiments according to their schedules
  • spread out satellites with between 6-12 month from each other
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An there is the question of fear which we need to address. The fear that the mission could fail. First of all the load on more shoulders will reduce the weight of loss if it would happen. That comes easily by not putting all eggs in one basket.

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Secondly, if you don’t trust the platform then the best way is indeed to make a loss less painful. That requires fast implementation, low cost and a guarantee to do a re-flight if something should happen to either the mission or the experiment. The steady pace of building carriers will allow to reduce the cost per platform drastically. The picture above is a reference to a concept of how this could be done.

Conclusion: towards Commercial Implementation

I think all actors can agree that Europe needs a good IOD strategy. I also think we all can agree that there is both demand and enough technical capabilities to implement it. With so much opportunity one wonder why is there not yet a much more vibrant commercial IOD marketplace. That however is a question left open for a future article.

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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