Europe considers selling unprofitable land-mapping service to private firms

Like the United States, Western Europe may put a network of land-mapping satellites into private hands. The 11-nation European Space Agency (ESA) is examining whether a network of receiving stations that obtains pictures from land-mapping satellites and routes them to customers would be more profitable if it were run by private companies.

A working group looking into the issue is due to report its findings by summer.

ESA operates two receiving stations -- in Kiruna, Sweden, and Fucino, Italy -- that get pictures from satellites such as the United States' Landsat series. The stations process the data and send it to coordinating centers in the 11 countries, which relay the information to users.

The receiving stations and information-dissemination system, known collectively as Earthnet, run at a loss. Of the $3 million or so that Earthnet costs to run each year, only about 15 percent is recouped through sales. Among the customers are farming organizations, which use the pictures from space to monitor crop growth, and oil companies, which can spot new minerals deposits by looking out for geological features on the pictures.

One of the central issues is the possibility that a private company, by introducing better marketing arrangements, could cut the losses of the service and even turn it into a profitable business.

One of the leading contenders to take over Earthnet is Spot Image of France. From January 1986 it will operate its own commercial service in remote-sensing information, using data supplied by a spot satellite due to enter orbit in October.

The examination of privatization by ESA comes as the US government is attempting to find a private buyer for the Landsat satellites, now operated by a federal agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NASA).

Whether this latter hand-over will proceed as planned is becoming doubtful. Eosat, a joint venture between Hughes and RCA which is due to buy the Landsat system, says it will not go ahead unless guaranteed a federal subsidy of $250 million over five years.

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