PARIS — A small Belgian company’s victory over larger French and British competition to provide an Earth observation satellite to Vietnam has added a third European company into the international mix of small-satellite providers as demand for these spacecraft appears to be growing.
Backed by national and regional government authorities, Liege-based Spacebel is expected to sign the contract for the 100-kilogram Vietnamese satellite in March during a Belgian state visit to Vietnam. The satellite will carry an optical imager capable of taking pictures with a 2.5-meter resolution in black-and-white mode, and 10 meters in color.
Astrium Satellites of France was selected to provide Vietnam’s first Earth observation satellite, which is under construction and scheduled for launch in 2013.
Spacebel Managing Director Thierry du Pre-Werson said Vietnamese authorities wanted to diversify their satellite supplier mix. The win, he said, should help better position Spacebel in what is likely to be a series of competitions to provide countries in Latin America, the Middle East and Asia with small spacecraft to permit closer government oversight of agricultural, land and water resources.
It also appeals to these governments’ desire for a national program. Vietnam has been training engineers with Astrium for the first satellite and will also get training from the Spacebel consortium, which includes Qinetiq Space of Belgium, a subsidiary of U.K.-based Qinetiq.
Spacebel, with Qinetiq and its other partners in Belgium, are responsible for construction of the Proba series of satellites, two of which are in orbit for the 19-nation European Space Agency (ESA). The first, Proba-1, was launched in 2001 and is still operational. The second, launched in November 2009, is also operational, du Pre-Werson said in an interview.
A third, called Proba-Vegetation, is scheduled for launch in 2012-2013 aboard one of the first flights of ESA’s Vega small-satellite launch vehicle.
Still another Proba platform is intended for launch as part of an ESA-supported formation-flying experiment that will also include a small satellite built by Spanish industry. This mission, sometimes referred to as Proba-3, has yet to receive the necessary financing to begin full development since the Swedish government, which had been slated to lead the effort, had to scale back its contribution.
Proba-3, still in design phase, is expected to be a subject debated by ESA government ministers at their late-2012 conference to decide on a multiyear space budget and program.
Three or four Proba platforms are not enough for Spacebel and its partners to go head-to-head with Astrium, whose French government-developed Myriade platform already has been sold for about a dozen missions. Similarly, Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) of Britain, which is owned by Astrium, remains the acknowledged world leader in the number of small satellites sold for export.
Du Pre-Werson acknowledged as much, but said the Spacebel team has been able to overcome its size disadvantage by successfully adopting the consortium formula for the Proba line. Just as important, he said, is the fact that Belgian government authorities are now aware of what they can do to back an export bid.
“Today there is a real desire to promote the growth of exports,” du Pre-Werson said. “The Vietnamese contract is an example of this. We weren’t big enough to compete with Astrium, Thales Alenia Space or SSTL, which is why we have established the consortium of companies in Belgium to do the work.”
He said Belgium has begun using its export-credit agency to facilitate financing of export contracts. France’s Coface is also active in supporting French satellite exports. Du Pre-Werson said the Spacebel-led team had considered itself well-placed for an expected Libyan Earth observation satellite system, which has been placed on indefinite hold given the NATO intervention in Libya’s civil war. In addition to the European companies, Japan’s Mitsubishi Electric Co. has indicated it will be active in offering a line of small Earth observation satellite products.
Earth observation satellites still account for only a minority of the company’s annual revenue. Du Pre-Werson said the company expects to report 9.5 million euros ($13.8 million), up from slightly less than 9 million euros in 2010 and 7 million in 2009. EBIT, or earnings before interest and taxes, is 3 to 4 percent of revenue.
The arrival of Europe’s Vega rocket will provide a recurring revenue source for Spacebel. The company is providing the rocket’s guidance, navigation and control system starting with the vehicle’s second or third launch following a decision by the French government to prohibit export of French technology for the Italian-led Vega.
About one-fourth of the company’s business is in on-board satellite hardware. Forty percent or more of sales is from simulator work. Spacebel recently won a five-year contract for satellite simulation services from the French space agency, CNES. Satellite ground equipment, especially user equipment, accounts for 25 to 30 percent of revenue, much of it for ESA’s Esrin facility in Italy.
Spacebel is majority owned by the regional Wallone government, with private-equity investors holding some 25 percent of the company.
By Peter B. de Selding