Astrium Eyes Raising Stakes in SpotImage, Hisdesat

The EADS unit already is a global leader in military satellite communications and a pioneer in providing milsatcom capabilities on a service contract basis. A British affiliate, Paradigm, is supplying UHF and X-band milsatcom services to the U.K. under the 3.6 billion pound ($7.4 billion) 20-year Skynet 5 program, and seeking to establish a beachhead in the lucrative U.S. government telecom market.

Astrium also is building turnkey secure milsatcom systems for Germany, in partnership with SES affiliate ND Satcom, and the United Arab Emirates, under a $1.6 billion teaming arrangement with Thales Alenia Space.

The company also is a force in the remote sensing market, through Infoterra, a wholly owned radar imaging affiliate and a 40 percent stake in optical imaging specialist SpotImage. In addition, it was part of the consortium that was bidding to deploy and operate Europe’s Galileo satellite navigation system, and will certainly be part of the new team when the operations tender comes up again later in the decade.

The aim now, CEO Eric Beranger says, is to leverage these capabilities into a one-stop shop for satellite services. The move would be similar to the approach Iridium is taking with its Next constellation.

An initial step could be to combine radar and optical imaging products into integrated geospatial information services. To facilitate this, Beranger hopes to nail down the purchase of the 41 percent holding in SpotImage owned by French space agency CNES so it would be in a better position to do so. CNES Director General Yannick d’Escatha says he wants to strike a deal this year, although Beranger admits “there is still lots of work to do.”

Once this is done, Astrium hopes to come to an agreement with the French government for a successor to the Spot 5 satellite, launched in 2002. Although the continued good health of Spot 2 and 4 indicate Spot 5 is likely to remain operational for some time, Beranger considers it urgent to line up a replacement to ensure the continuity of medium-resolution (1-3 meter) imagery, which represents the bulk of SpotImage’s business.

Astrium last year completed Phase A preliminary definition for the new spacecraft and would be willing to help fund it, provided it can land a significant pre-sales agreement, Beranger says. He notes that President Nicolas Sarkozy has come down squarely in favor of public-private funding initiatives, and that a tax proposal currently before the French parliament would smooth their implementation.

In January, InfoTerra began marketing radar imagery on its new TerraSAR-X satellite, for which it has exclusive commercial imaging rights under a public-private partnership deal with German aerospace center DLR. A second satellite, Tandem-X, will provide backup and a 3D stereo imaging capability when it is launched in 2009. SpotImage has exclusive commercial rights to a pair of submetric imaging satellites, Pleiades 1 and 2, which are to enter operation in 2010-11.

Another step contemplated by Beranger is to continue consolidating Astrium’s holdings in various telecom entities that would facilitate the bundling of telecom services. In 2006, the company acquired full control of the London Satellite Exchange, which helps supply L-, C-, Ku- and Ka-band capacity to NATO and a half dozen European countries. Last month, it inaugurated a new teleport in Toulouse to enhance C- and Ku-band coverage and supplement three other facilities in the U.K. and Germany. The launch customer will be France, which agreed to use the teleport for its Passerel overseas welfare services program. The four-year contract kicked in with service to Chad on Jan. 31.

Astrium also acquired GPT, a Saudi telecom infrastructure and maintenance specialist. GPT, which currently supplies services for the Saudi National Guard company, is seen an ideal vehicle for widening the company’s foothold in the Middle East.

In addition, Beranger says the company would consider raising its stake in Hisdesat, a Spanish milsatcom venture with Hispasat and other companies in which the EADS subsidiary currently has a 15 percent share. Hisdesat owns a Spanish X-band satellite, SpainSat, and 44 percent in another, XTAREUR, in partnership with Loral Space & Communications.

When Loral last year sold off its satellite operations unit Skynet to Telesat, it retained its holding in XTAR, the XTAREUR operating venture, which has been slow to fill up available capacity. Astrium also owns 5 percent of Hispasat, which could provide added leverage. Indra, which owns 7 percent of Hisdesat, and Sener, which has a 5 percent share, have indicated a willingness to sell. However, the Spanish government, which has a 30 percent holding, would have to approve. So far, Beranger says he has received no offers.

By Michael A. Taverna

Source AviationWeek



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