Later this year, the nation’s two satellite-radio giants, Sirius and XM, are set to merge. But even as the combined entity will figure out what neither Sirius nor XM has on its own–how, finally, to make some money–new challenges are brewing.

Case in point: an emerging technology that’s poised to make existing satellite radio look like television before TiVo. The European Space Agency (ESA) has designed and (with BMW) prototyped a receiver and digital recorder that allows car-bound listeners to preprogram, record, fast-forward, and rewind satellite-radio programs–as well as video, games, and other digital media.

The ESA’s system converts satellite signals into digital files that are stored on a hard drive, like podcasts. Then software developed by BMW allows the driver to customize a music experience–or get real-time weather or navigation instructions–while simultaneously playing video for the kids in the back or downloading software for the vehicle’s computer.

“You have a cache full of content, and you can get the system to generate programs based on your preferences,” says Rolv Midthassel, communications engineer at the agency’s European Space Research and Technology Center. Bonus: Since content is kept on a hard drive, your radio won’t cut out when you drive through a tunnel.

The ESA’s receiver uses signals from existing satellites–so instead of costing about $1 billion for a dedicated satellite and network of towers (à la both XM and Sirius), the tab could be as little as $1.5 million a year to rent a satellite transponder. But not just yet. BMW is interested, but says it’ll be a few years before hardware, software, and programming fall into place.FCS