The story below was written by Michael A. Taverna in Paris and Douglas Barrie in London, and published in the March 30 Aviation Week & Space Technology
A proactive approach to technology development, combined with restrictive U.S. technology export and data-sharing policies, is giving European contractors a big edge in the international imaging satellite business.
Since Alenia (now Thales Alenia Space) was awarded a contract for the bus and radar antenna structure on Radarsat-2 at the beginning of the decade, European manufacturers have dominated international remote-sensing satellite sales, winning key awards in South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Algeria and Nigeria.
Last December, EADS Astrium landed a contract to supply a surveillance system for Chile. In January, Telespazio, Thales Alenia’s sister company, was selected to supply the Gokturk submetric-resolution optical satellite system for Turkey.
One clear reason for this success, notes Thales Alenia President/CEO Raynald Selznec, is the willingness of European governments to permit the export of high-performance surveillance spacecraft with fewer strings attached than U.S. and Israeli competitors. European companies, led by Thales Alenia, are also developing technologies that allow them increasingly to avoid critical U.S. components, and thus to skirt International Traffic in Arms Regulations.
But other factors, such as the ability to offer high-resolution performance on compact cost-efficient platforms, are equally important, says Selznec. These technologies have been developed in part through strong support from European space programs. Thales Alenia’s bids for Gokturk and South Korea’s Koreasat 5, for instance, were based on submetric radar technology developed for Italy’s CosmoSkyMed constellation. The German government is supporting the development of optical data links and hyperspectral and 3D radar imagery.
But industry has also invested heavily. Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd., for example, has led the way in devising turnkey microsat systems for developing nations. SSTL will launch a small 2.5-meter-resolution spacecraft for Nigeria this year and is now bringing out submetric designs (AW&ST Jan. 10, p. 31).
At the same time, executives say, U.S. reluctance to share sensitive remote-sensing data with even its closest allies is encouraging European nations that formerly relied on American sensors to develop their own assets. Germany’s experience along these lines during the Kosovo campaign led its armed forces to develop the SAR-Lupe submetric radarsat constellation.
Now, Britain is thinking of following suit. The U.K.’s Topsat demonstrator, which involved Qinetiq and SSTL, provided London with a low-cost electro-optical system that has been delivering imagery for four years. Partially funded by the British Defense Ministry, Topsat has rekindled interest in a national ability to generate geospatial intelligence. Though the U.K. has privileged access to U.S. products, there is a growing recognition that inevitably Washington’s needs come first.
The ministry’s Defense Technology Plan has identified two potential areas of further development for small-satellite technology: international research collaboration and further national smallsat demonstrators. Alongside EO payloads, there is also interest in a relatively low-cost radar satellite demonstrator.
Funding issues, however, may well stymie U.K. military and industry ambitions in the near term. No milspace R&D funding has been allocated for the next financial year. The potential to distribute the output from an EO or radar satellite project among several government departments may be one way of garnering the necessary support.
But there are other factors behind Europe’s success, too. One is the growing attention to integrating satellite manufacture and services. Telespazio’s selection for Gokturk hinged partly on its willingness to set up a joint venture for developing and marketing geospatial information products, says CEO Giuseppe Veredice.
European contractors are also not shy about sharing engineering know-how, training and technical assistance with nations that want to develop their own systems if it can help them to penetrate new markets. SSTL recently delivered two of three suites of satellite avionics and software for Russia’s new family of Kanopus Earth-observation satellites, the first two of which are to be launched in late 2009/early 2010. The third set is to be handed over this year. France recently concluded an agreement with Brazil to consider jointly developing a multimission smallsat platform for Earth-observation applications. The French also plan to support VNREDSat (Vietnam Natural Resources, Environment, Disaster Satellite), to be launched in 2012.
Europe’s advance is even giving its suppliers opportunities to penetrate the hitherto-protected U.S. market. Late last year, Lockheed Martin struck a deal to enlist Thales Alenia’s synthetic aperture radar know-how to meet the U.S. Air Force’s Operationally Responsive Space requirement. USAF is also working closely with SSTL to develop nanosat technologies.