(By Peter B. de Selding | Aug. 28, 2014, Spacenews) PONTE VEDRA, Fla. — The Italian government’s agreement to commit another 66.6 million euros ($88 million) to the design of a second-generation Cosmo-SkyMed radar satellite system will keep the program moving forward but does not assure it will be completed in time to assure continuity with the first-generation system, Italian government and industry officials said.
Thales Alenia Space, Cosmo-SkyMed’s prime contractor, announced Aug. 27 that it and its sister company, ground-services provider Telespazio, had received contracts valued at 43.6 million euros and 23 million euros, respectively, to continue designing the two-satellite system.
But a substantial new funding commitment will be needed before the end of the year if the satellites are to be launched in 2017 and 2018, a date that Thales Alenia Space and the Italian Space Agency (ASI) agree would assure no gaps in coverage between the first- and second-generation systems.
ASI President Roberto Battiston said after the contract was signed that “it is essential that the first satellite be operational by 2017 and the second by 2018.”
“You can now proceed without interruption,” Battiston told the industrial team. “ASI remains committed, together with the government, to finding the necessary resources to complete the entire program.”
Cosmo-SkyMed is a four-satellite radar Earth observation system designed to provide imagery at ground resolutions as sharp as less than 1 meter for military customers, and between 1 meter and 100 meters for nonmilitary users.
The four satellites were launched between June 2007 and November 2010 with design lives of five years. As is the case with most large Earth observation spacecraft, the Cosmo-SkyMed satellites have continued to operate well beyond their contractual service lives, taking some of the pressure off Italian space-budget planners.
But Thales Alenia Space and ASI have concluded that the follow-on system, with two satellites instead of four, need to be in service by 2018 to avoid a service gap. Italian officials have concluded an agreement with the Argentine government that will permit Argentina’s Saocom radar satellites, still in development, to complement the second-generation Cosmo-SkyMed to reduce time between orbital passes over a given geographic area.
As it deals with a slow economic recovery, the Italian government is confronting major new demands on its space budget in 2014. ASI is struggling to complete the financial package needed to assure that the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Mars-exploration program, featuring launches in 2016 and 2018, stays on schedule, particularly for the second launch.
In addition, Italy wants the next meeting of ESA ministers, scheduled for December, to result in an agreement to upgrade the Italian-led Vega small-satellite launcher alongside commitments to a next-generation Ariane rocket.
Germany, meanwhile, is pressuring Italy to bring its international space station contribution back to previous levels, which will mean nearly tripling its investment from today’s funding, starting in 2015.
Battiston told journalists in late August that he was uncertain of being able to find the resources for all these commitments but that he was nonetheless determined to try.
The first-generation Cosmo-SkyMed constellation cost around 900 million euros. For the second-generation system, cost estimates have been at around 400 million euros.
While not resulting in a major financial contribution, the Polish Defense Ministry’s decision to join the program with a 2.5 percent stake, and to agree to operate its own, independent ground Earth station to access radar imagery, was a diplomatic success for Italy and added to pressure in Italy to assure full financing of the second-generation system.
The 66.6 million-euro tranche that Thales Alenia Space announced Aug. 27 will permit completion of system design and “basic technological developments for both the on-board component … and all the ground infrastructure.”
Elisio Giacomo Prette, chief executive of Thales Alenia Space Italia, said in a statement that the contract will fund industry work until 2015.
Prette said continuity of service between the first- and second-generation systems can only be guaranteed if the first second-generation satellite is in service by June 2017, with second in orbit in 2018.
“To achieve this goal — and since the [contract tranche] agreed upon provides only partial financial coverage — guaranteeing financing for the entire system by the end of 2014 is an essential priority,” Prette said