Thales Alenia Space Unveils New Sat Amid Job Cuts
PARIS—Thales Alenia Space on Sept. 10 introduced Space Inspire, a new satellite design aimed at power and flexibility for the geostationary telecommunications market.
“Inspire” stands for “instant space in-orbit reconfiguration,” CEO Jean-Loic Galle says, speaking on the sidelines of Euroconsult’s World Satellite Business Week. The move is part of a trend toward software-defined satellites that also includes Airbus’s Onesat and Boeing’s 702X series.
The idea is to offer a satellite that the operator can reconfigure easily to serve a new geographic area or change the mix between TV broadcast and broadband connectivity. Transforming a direct-to-home TV satellite into a high-throughput connectivity satellite and changing its coverage almost in real time was unconceivable a few years ago and Thales Alenia Space has designed Space Inspire to meet this challenge at an affordable price, the company says.
Operators’ wait-and-see attitude about near-term technology caused the 2017-18 downturn in geostationary satellite orders and Space Inspire is an answer to this uncertainty, Galle says.
Built-in flexibility will enable operators to “capture opportunities when and where they are.” The transponders are digital. Beam forming of the antennas is digital too, meaning thousands of beams can be pointed and steered individually.
The satellite’s power will be 15 kW and its capacity 200 Gpbs. It has been designed for low capital expenditure, which explains the relatively modest capacity by today’s standards. But customers can co-locate two or more for them to combine capacities, Galle says.
Three Space Inspire satellites can fit under the fairing of a SpaceX Falcon 9 or Arianespace Ariane 5 launcher (in the latter instance, they will fill the upper or lower position). “If a customer buys only one satellite, we may try to arrange a joint launch with another customer,” Galle says. A Space Inspire will weigh 2,000 kg (4,400 lb.) and its propulsion will be all electric.
As the satellite is designed to be easily assigned a new mission, an operator may sell it to another operator. Thales Alenia Space engineers will use a digital twin to closely follow the configuration. Life expectancy is said to be 15 years.
The program’s schedule calls for being ready for a first launch in 2023. Technology risks are low enough for Thales Alenia Space to be confident with the schedule, Galle says.
The factory will be able to manufacture six examples of the new satellite per year. The difference between the Ku- and Ka-band versions will be limited to a few components. Thanks to reduced customer options—they will have to choose between Ku and Ka and may add a hosted payload—the production cycle is expected to be short. Thales Alenia Space suggests 18 months as the lead time between order and delivery.
The introduction took place as the company is facing headwinds. It anticipates a 10% drop in revenues this year and next year. As a result, it is about to cut 500 jobs out of a total 8,000.
Most of the job cuts will happen in France—Thales Alenia Space’s other home country being Italy—because this is where the bulk of the telecommunications activity is located. The company is trying to avoid layoffs through solutions such as employee transfer to other Thales units, Galle says. For several months, Thales units have been encouraged to outsource work when needed to Thales Alenia Space instead of third-party companies.
Galle blames the situation on the slow market, which saw only seven geostationary telecommunications satellites ordered last year in competitions, according to Euroconsult. “We are seeing the impact in 2019-20,” Galle says.
Thales Alenia Space won only one of last year’s orders, although it was a very large one, Galle contends. On top of this, the Iridium and O3b constellations accounted for 10% of the company’s activity for six years but production ended in 2018, he says, shrinking the backlog considerably.
Galle nevertheless says Thales Alenia Space has a competitive product range and expresses confidence that contracts will be signed by year’s end.