Sep 20, 2014

Thales Alenia Steps Up Efforts To Sell Earth-observation Satellites Abroad

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SpaceNews, PARIS — Space hardware manufacturer Thales Alenia Space, having watched rival and sometime partner Airbus Defence and Space win Earth observation satellite contracts without Thales help, is introducing an all-Thales observation satellite platform and a new, lighter radar reconnaissance product for export markets, Thales Chief Executive Jean-Loic Galle said.

One of the first tests of the optical observation product’s competitiveness is likely to be in Colombia, which is organizing an international competition for a satellite with a better-than-1-meter ground resolution.

In a Sept. 19 briefing here during the World Satellite Business Week conference organized by Euroconsult, Thales Alenia Space officials said the company has cut its costs across all its business lines to win telecommunications awards. Until late 2013, Thales had been largely absent from the winners’ circle in global telecommunications satellite competitions.

Galle said a broad cost-reduction effort succeeded in reducing the company’s satellite cost basis by 12 percent. The result, he said, has been five telecommunications satellite awards so far in 2014, including a two-satellite win for KT Corp. of South Korea.

One of these awards, for the Yamal-601 satellite for Russia’s Gazprom Space Systems, had to overcome a recent U.S. government export-license denial apparently having to do with broader U.S. sanctions against Russia for its incursion into Ukraine.

Galle said the contract is back on track as the U.S. parts were replaced by European components.

The contracts for KT Corp. and for Indonesia’s PT Telkom, for the Telkom 3S satellite, were won by providing an extended version of Thales’s Spacebus B2 satellite platform, with on-board power of as much as 7 kilowatts — up from 5 kilowatts previously.

Similarly, the company’s Spacebus C4 line of larger telecommunications satellites is being upgraded to provide 15 kilowatts of power, up from 11 kilowatts. Galle said the increase in power was key to the company’s contract with Arabsat of Saudi Arabia and Inmarsat of London, for the Inmarsat/HellasSat satellite.

Thales Alenia Space’s telecommunications satellite product line will further evolve as the NEOSat project with the French and European space agencies advances. Thales and Airbus will be using elements of the NEOSat research project, whose goal is to better position European manufacturers against international competitors.

NEOSat versions will be developed for satellites with 9 kilowatts, 16 kilowatts and 20 kilowatts of power, using electric and conventional chemical propulsion.

“These three platforms are all modular, a kind of Lego using the same building blocks, which will enable us to reduce production cycle time,” Galle said. “Our production time now is 25 to 34 months and we want to reduce this drastically.”

The first commercial products coming from the NEOSat government research program should be in the company’s portfolio by mid-2015, Galle said, with a first launch in 2018.

Bertrand Moreau, the company’s senior vice president for telecommunications systems, said Thales has set an internal goal of reducing the cost of its telecommunications satellites by 30 percent.

Thales Alenia Space and Airbus have long worked together on Earth observation satellites for the French government with the Spot civil, Helios military and Pleiades dual-use satellites using Thales imagers and Astrium platforms.

The two companies have also collaborated on the two-satellite Falcon Eye reconnaissance system for the United Arab Emirates, which after delays relating to U.S. export issues is now expected to enter into force by December, Galle said.

But as the global market for submetric Earth observation satellites has grown, and the cost of these systems has come down, Airbus has begun offering its own optical sensors, most recently in a reconnaissance satellite for the government of Peru.

Thales will now do likewise. Galle said the company is bidding for reconnaissance satellite systems in South America and Asia. It is also bidding for a radar satellite contract in Asia, he said.

Thales Alenia Space, which its main production facilities in France and Italy, is prime contractor for Italy’s Cosmo-SkyMed four-satellite radar reconnaissance system.

The radar satellite platform has been viewed as too large — and thus too expensive when including launch — for the current market. Massimo Di Lazzaro, the company’s senior vice president for observation systems, said the new radar platform offers a submetric resolution in a satellite with a launch mass of less than 1,000 kilograms — small enough to be launched on Europe’s Vega rocket.

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