Science & Environment

Astrium space company on 'stable' course

Dubai
Image caption The skyscrapers of Dubai pictured by the new Pleiades-1 high-resolution satellite

Astrium, Europe's biggest space company, is to investigate the best strategies for protecting Earth from threatening asteroids.

The EU-funded research project is one of a host of ventures that will occupy the firm in the year ahead, its chief executive Francois Auque said.

The CEO was giving his annual New Year press briefing in Paris.

Astrium had "stable" revenues of 5bn euros (£4.2bn) in 2011, with new contract wins valued at 3.6bn euros.

These new orders included four telecoms satellites and the management role in the proposed European Data Relay System (EDRS), which will dramatically improve the speed at which Earth observation information can be pulled down from spacecraft in orbit.

"2011 was a good year. In terms of volume of activity, it was stable," Mr Auque told BBC News.

"In terms of new orders, it allowed us to keep about three years of work ahead of us."

Astrium employs about 15,000 employees, mainly in France, Germany, the UK, Spain and the Netherlands. It is the consequence of consolidation among a number big European space companies at the turn of the century.

Astrium's workload is largely dominated (70%) by government and institutional orders, such as the M51 nuclear missile programme and the Pleiades high-resolution satellite system it delivered to France this year. It also leads the production of Europe's Ariane 5 rocket.

Mr Auque said Astrium was aiming to shift the balance to more commercial endeavour to take account of flat national budgets during the current economic crisis.

Nonetheless, he urged member states of the European Union and the European Space Agency (Esa) to maintain a strong investment in space.

"My message to them is simple," he told BBC News. "They have invested heavily in space in the past and this has produced many valuable assets.

"But everywhere you look in the world there has been a dramatic increase in space spending; so if Europe wants to maintain the value of its assets, it has to maintain its investment."

Both the EU and Esa will soon settle budget arrangements for the space activity that will occur in the middle of this decade.

For Esa, this will happen in November, when ministers meet to agree future programmes and the roughly 10 billion euros that will be needed to fund them.

The asteroid study, which was initiated this week, is being led from the German space agency (DLR). Astrium will provide industrial expertise.

The three-and-a-half-year project, funded under the EU's FP7 science programme, will assess the best ideas for dealing with a Near Earth Object (NEO) on collision course with Earth.

Astrium will consider what a demonstration space mission sent to intercept the rock might look like.

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter

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