In Europe, where economic turmoil has kept space spending flat or declining among most of the European Space Agency's (ESA's) 20 member states, public funding for next-generation telecommunications satellites is helping finance two cutting-edge hardware developments aimed at keeping European industry competitive.

Approved in November 2012, support for the projects is based in part on the success of past public-private partnerships, through which ESA has co-financed new telecom technologies with potential for recurring exploitation in the commercial market.

“More than ever we have to support the industry with the introduction of the right solutions, and the right timing as well,” says Magali Vaissiere, ESA director of Telecommunications and Integrated Applications, adding that Europe's 35% share of the global satcom market is the result of continuous improvements to technologies. “We cannot take this position for granted.”

With the U.S. spending less on government satellite procurement, and with new rules relaxing exports of some U.S. satellite technologies, American manufacturers—chiefly Boeing and Lockheed Martin—are hungrily looking abroad for more work. In Beijing, China Great Wall Industry Corp. is offering space-based telecom solutions with its DFH-4 satellite bus and Long March family of rockets—sometimes in exchange for oil and other raw materials, but more often paired with financing through Chinese export-credit banks. And in Japan, an amendment to the nation's space law a few years back prompted Mitsubishi Electric Co. to move from the institutional arena to the commercial market, where the company recently won a two-satellite telecom deal with Turkish operator Turksat against stiff competition from European and U.S. industry.

To keep European satellite operators and manufacturers competitive, Vaissiere says public-private financing plans enable ESA to share the cost of innovative developments that can eventually be spun-off into the market. “Otherwise the operators would not be able to take enough technology risk to enable these new solutions,” she says.

ESA initiated its first public-private venture in 2006 with the Hylas-1 broadband telecommunications satellite. Launched in 2010, the €120-million ($156-million hybrid Ka and Ku-band satellite built for London-based operator Avanti Communications included €34 miliion in ESA financing. The arrangement included a satellite bus furnished via Antrix, the commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organization, while Astrium Satellites provided the electronics payload, which includes a subsystem built with ESA funding that permits Avanti to adjust Hylas-1's power and broadcast frequencies over different regions to meet demand.

A second collaboration—involving ESA, the French space agency CNES, Astrium and its chief European rival, Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy—developed the large Alphabus platform with the goal of making the two suppliers competitive in the 8,000-kg (17,736-lb.) weight class. The bus's sole application to date is Inmarsat's IX-L, fifth-generation, L-band satellite, known as Alphasat, which is slated to launch this year. But Astrium and Thales are hopeful that a move in 2011 to boost the bus's payload power to 22 kw—close to the upper capability of Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Space Systems/Loral designs—will yield future business.

Vaissiere says ESA has spent €287 million to co-finance development of the nearly €600-million Alphabus. Another €199 million is invested in Alphasat, including the main payload and four technology demonstration payloads it will fly.

“Alphasat will be the start maybe of the commercial life of Alphabus,” Vaissiere says. “We know the demand is there. And we will treat Alphabus the way we treat all European platforms with support for some improvements.”

ESA is also developing the SmallGEO spacecraft bus with OHB of Germany. The first SmallGeo satellite, Hispasat AG1, will be owned and operated by fleet operator Hispasat of Spain, with launch scheduled for late 2014. ESA is also co-financing the European Data Relay System (EDRS) through a 15-year, public-private partnership with Astrium Services in which ESA has invested €275 million, with Astrium paying the balance of roughly €100 million. The first EDRS payload is expected to launch in 2014 aboard a commercial telecommunications satellite owned by Paris-based fleet operator Eutelsat. A second EDRS payload will be mounted on a dedicated EDRS satellite, Hylas-3, to be launched in 2015 by Avanti.

Vaissiere says ESA's next public-private venture will involve the development of Europe's first all-electric propulsion spacecraft, Electra, led by Luxembourg-based fleet operator SES and based on OHB's SmallGEO platform in the 3,000-kg weight class.

Slated to fly in 2017, Electra will use lightweight, electrically powered thrusters rather than conventional chemical propulsion to maneuver into a final position in geostationary orbit. Unlike chemically propelled satellites, all-electric spacecraft can take several months to reach their intended orbit post launch, but the technology potentially cuts in half a satellite's weight, and subsequently its launch costs, which can top €100 million, depending on the size of the spacecraft.

ESA is investing €97 million in Electra, including €58 million from Germany and another €17 million from Luxembourg. Slated to fly in 2017, Vaissiere says the project is an evolution of past public-private partnerships and is aimed at defining a generic legal framework so operators can initiate partnerships to develop innovative projects with an industrial team.

“This was not the case for Alphabus, where ESA and CNES initiated development of a new platform and then looked for a first flight opportunity,” Vaissiere says. “Electra is the first instance where in this case SES has come to us with OHB to propose that we introduce a full-electric propulsion system in orbit.”

Vaissiere says SES will play a larger role than operators in the past in terms of steering the design of the spacecraft.

“Later on, when we move into the development phase, we will see what kind of role each of the companies involved will play,” she says, adding that the propulsion subsystems are to be competed among European suppliers. “But it shows that they are paying a lot of attention to this critical technology, which is electric propulsion.”

Vaissiere says Electra is largley a response to Boeing's announcement last year of an estimated $400-million deal with Asia Broadcast Satellite (ABS) and Satellites Mexicanos to build the first all-electric commercial telecom spacecraft intended for launch to geostationary orbit.

In addition, China is increasingly competitive in the telecom market, with plans to introduce two new variants of its DFH-4 satellite bus starting this year, both featuring lithium-ion batteries and the option of ion-electric propulsion.

Beijing already offers one-stop shopping through China Great Wall Industry Corp. (CGWIC), based on turnkey satellite services for customers with little experience operating satellite systems. Introduced in 2006, the DFH-4 initially suffered from unreliability, though CGWIC says seven spacecraft based on the platform are now operating in orbit. In addition to the space segment, CGWIC offers customers launches atop China's Long March family of rockets, insurance, ground control stations and training, as well as financing through Chinese banks.

The company also is expanding its services to include system planning and frequency coordination. More long term is the larger, next-generation DFH-5.

“As an all-electric spacecraft, the DFH-5 will be the evolvement of DFH-4,” says Wang Hui, director of the communications satellite division at CGWIC. “The DFH-5 platform will be 6.5-7 tons, and will be launched by the Long March-5 series of launch vehicles; but the launch time is not settled yet.”

ESA is also investing €259 million to develop next-generation satellite platforms under a project known as NeoSat, to replace the Astrium Eurostar and Thales Alenia Space Spacebus platforms in the 3,000-6,000-kg weight class. NeoSat will also develop, qualify and validate underlying platform subsystems, functional chains, equipment and technology. Slated for a first flight in 2018, the project seeks to achieve a 30% reduction in cost for the companies by providing technologies necessary to capture at least 50% of the satellite communications market.

NeoSat is in the design phase, “where we have to reflect on the major tradeoffs,” Vaissiere says. “We have to look at all of the evolutions from the rest of the world, and at the different possible industrial structures.”

Patrick Wood, Astrium's chief technology officer for satellites, says the company's Eurostar 3000 bus has proved to be “a fantastic modular design,” one which the company is now using to build geostationary spacecraft in excess of 6,500 kg.

“The mass is driven by the fact that we're miniaturizing the payloads while customers are pushing us to increase payload capacity,” Wood says. “Because the packing density of the payload can be higher, the surface area on which it is mounted is larger, and so we're building these huge Eurostar 3000 spacecraft.”

Despite Eurostar 3000's flexibility, Wood says ESA's NeoSat next-generation telecom platform presents an opportunity to rethink the design to incorporate new technologies and potentially even new types of propulsion.

“We're getting to the point where we have to evolve to look at more modern materials and reevaluate the architecture of this classical design we've used for 25 years,” he says. “But it's also looking at how we optimize that payload capacity even further. We just can't keep adding floors and floors to the design because the center of gravity gets too complex.”

Vaissiere says ESA and its industry partners are weighing the potential to develop standardized equipment, such as batteries, solar arrays and propulsion system elements.

“The goal is to increase the competitiveness of the new generation, and to do that we believe we can find somewhat standardized interfaces with the equipment within some architectural systems,” Vaissiere says. “But we need to understand what is going to be standardized, what is not. It would be primarily a set of standardized equipment, and then indeed this would lead to two families of platforms replacing respectively Eurostar and Spacebus.”

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