Bartolomeo: the new European challenge for boosting commercial activities on the International Space Station

An illustration of the Bartolomeo external payload platform mounted on the International Space station. (credit: Airbus)

After the recent successful launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, which promises to open a new age in spaceflight, it is time for Europe to develop a new program to boost its capacities for commercial space activities.

The European Space Agency and Airbus Defence and Space have signed a commercial public-private partnership (PPP) agreement for construction, launch, and operations of the commercial “Bartolomeo” platform. This new external payload hosting facility will be attached to the European Columbus module of the International Space Station (ISS) in mid-2019.

Bartolomeo will offer 12 payloads slots on the exterior of the Columbus module. The growing number of commercial space users developing payloads in the 100-kilogram class is driving demand. The payloads do not require hands-on maintenance by astronauts and can be operated outside of the ISS.

The formula for payload size is flexible. Users can squeeze in as little as five kilograms by sharing the ride with other experiments, or have an entire slot of up to 450 kilograms at their disposal. The waiting time from the moment a contract is signed to “go for launch” is one to two years, much shorter than the standard timeframe for experiments. The rental agreement in space is for a minimum of one year.

The agreement defines the roles and responsibilities of the two PPP partners, with Airbus investing around €40 million (US$49 million) into its development and to promote commercialization of this innovative platform. ESA will support the launch, installation, and operations.

Bartolomeo will be launched in the unpressurized compartment of an ISS supply vehicle and installed using the ISS robotics system and a spacewalk. Airbus is then responsible for platform operations and payload integration. This is the first time that a European commercial partnership is offering the opportunity to carry out science and demonstrate technology outside the station.

These new commercial opportunities are open to users worldwide, coming from various areas including Earth observation, new spaceflight applications, and commercial missions. Earth observation and telecommunications, exobiology, and space weather research are areas of great demand that will benefit. Bartolomeo represents a cost- and time-effective way for institutional and private organizations to bring their experiments into space as external payloads.

With the Bartolomeo platform, a new kind of service is developing the “All-in-One Space Mission.” Indeed, the users can concentrate on their payload, while Airbus take cares of everything else, from launch and installation to in-space operations, communication links, and even returning the experiment to Earth if it is required.

The Bartolomeo All-in-One Mission Service will provide end-to-end access for external payloads on the station. It provides an unobstructed view of Earth, direct control of the experiments from the ground, and the possibility of retrieving samples. Quick access to space, high-speed data feeds, and a unique vantage point are the selling points of this new commercial venture on the ISS. Its versatile design allows for many mission types at competitive prices from next year. 

The ISS has been growing in size over the past 20 years, and so have the number of platforms dedicated to science in orbit. However, researchers and engineers are finding it harder to acquire slots for their experiments. Bartolomeo aims to attract new users to the station, including a community of startups and space entrepreneurs. As companies piggyback off existing station resources to reduce cost, new commercial opportunities will arise.

This agreement between Airbus and ESA for Bartolomeo illustrates the complexities of the International Space Station legal framework that make such a partnership possible, but which also shows how that framework will need to change to take into account growing commercial interest, and potentially operations, of the station.

The International Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement, often referred to as “the IGA”, is an international treaty signed on January 29, 1998 by the 15 governments involved in the ISS project. This key government-level document establishes “a long term international cooperative framework on the basis of genuine partnership, for the detailed design, development, operation, and utilisation of a permanently inhabited civil Space Station for peaceful purposes, in accordance with international law,” as stated in article 1.

Four Memoranda of Understandings (MoUs) between NASA and each cooperating space agency have also been signed: European Space Agency (ESA), Canadian Space Agency (CSA), Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The objective of these agency-level agreements is to describe in details the roles and responsibilities of the agencies in the design, development, operation, and utilization of the station. In addition, the agreements serve to establish the management structure and interfaces necessary to ensure effectively the utilisation of the Station.

Various bilateral Implementing Arrangements between the space agencies have been established to implement the Memoranda of Understandings. The arrangements distribute concrete guidelines and tasks among the national agencies.

The Intergovernmental Agreement allows the ISS partner states to extend their national jurisdiction in outer space, so the elements they provide (e.g. laboratories) are assimilated to the territories of the Partners States. The basic rule is that “each partner shall retain jurisdiction and control over the elements it registers and over personnel in or on the Space Station who are its nationals” (article 5 of the Intergovernmental Agreement).

This means that the owners of the ISS—the United States, Russia, the European partners, Japan, and Canada—are legally responsible for the respective elements they provide (in line with Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty). The European states are being treated as one homogenous entity, called the “European Partner” on the ISS. But any of the European States may extend their respective national laws and regulations to the European elements, equipment and personnel.

This extension of national jurisdiction determines what laws are applicable for activities occurring on a partner’s ISS elements (e.g. European law in the European Columbus Laboratory.) This legal regime recognises the jurisdiction of the Partner States’ courts and allows the application of national laws in such areas as criminal matters, liability issues, and protection of intellectual property rights. Any conflicts of jurisdiction between the partners may be resolved through the application of other rules and procedures already developed nationally and internationally.

This is a new way to address the role of the ISS opening a new era of cooperation and partnership in space exploration and commercial space activities. This emphasizes the necessity to offer more capacity to more users from more domains in the very near future. In my view, it is of utmost importance to develop an international legal framework for the activities carried out by private entities in outer space, by taking into account the notion of responsibility and property rights.


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