Global demand for space-based remote sensing has been growing steadily over the past decade, a trend that is expected to continue as an increasing number of radar and optical imaging constellations are launched to orbit, and Silicon Valley powerhouses like Google invest in their own spacecraft manufacturing operations.

In an effort to capitalize on such steady growth, European satellite manufacturers like Airbus Defense and Space, Thales Alenia Space and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) are taking steps to boost output as export customers continue to materialize, notably in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

Airbus Defense and Space has already built small but powerful remote-sensing satellites for the governments of United Arab Emirates, Kazakhstan, Japan and South Korea. Through its ownership of SSTL, the company has an even broader portfolio in providing small and very low-cost Earth-observation satellites to a diverse market segment that emerged over the past two decades in Brazil, Russia, India, China and beyond.

Most recently, Airbus won a contract with the Peruvian government to build Lima’s first remote-sensing spacecraft, PeruSat-1. Scheduled to launch in 2016 on a Vega rocket, development has been fast-tracked for delivery within two years of order.

“This has never been done with regard to an Earth-observation satellite of this quality,” says Eric Beranger, head of Airbus’s space systems division.

He says the condensed development cycle for the high-resolution satellite is enabled in part by changes in the way Airbus manufactures and integrates the satellite platform and optical instruments.

“This is a result of using materials like silicon carbide, which has a lot of merits in terms of production and integration because it is a material which is much faster to process,” Beranger says. “On top of that, since the mirror and the body of the instrument are the same material, we have fewer issues in terms of interfaces between the mirror and the structure.”

In tandem with PeruSat-1 development, Airbus recently unveiled its new Projects Factory concept, which relies on the division’s know-how in producing and integrating its Astrobus platform and Naomi family of optical instruments to bring down development and construction lead times for one-off satellites.

“Our aim is to create a balance between projects answering to very specific customer needs while using the very versatile new Astrobus-S platform, which can be adapted to many types of payloads and applications,” says Jean Dauphin, head of Airbus’s Earth observation, navigation and science programs.

Dauphin says the Projects Factory is aimed at more than doubling current production of highly specialized Earth-observation spacecraft, from roughly one per year currently to as many as three, and its ability to package more powerful optical instruments into smaller platforms is one way the company is saving customers money. Use of the Naomi family of optical instruments is also contributing to savings.

“In past programs, the payload is always the part that takes the longest, and very often the satellite platform is waiting on the instrument,” he says. “But the Naomi family of instruments uses the same building blocks—the same detectors, the same front-end electronics, the same video electronics, and the same silicon carbide material to make the base plate and mirrors, and all of this simplifies and accelerates the production.”

 “We have integrated all the functions so that the suppliers and partners are basically all organized around the production line,” he says, adding that the unit is borrowing manufacturing practices from Airbus Defense and Space’s telecommunications satellite division, which produced four or five satellites per year. Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy is also improving production processes, including the use of robotic systems to speed manufacturing, starting this year at its facility in Cannes. Borrowing a page from the automotive industry, the company is using “co-bots” to produce some satellite components in tandem with robotic systems in a fraction of the time.

Thales and prime contractor Telespazio of Italy recently completed development of a high-resolution satellite assembly, integration and test (AIT) facility near Ankara as part of a contract with the Turkish defense ministry to build and launch Gokturk-1, a sub-metric optical remote-sensing satellite.

The new AIT facility, among the largest and most modern in Europe, boasts more than 3,000 square meters with a mechanical vibration test bench, a 950-cubic-meter acoustic test chamber, a thermal-vacuum chamber measuring over 350 cubic meters, a compact-antenna test range and supports for the deployment of solar panels and antennas.

 “Thales Alenia Space has the capacity to be the natural partner to countries that want to expand their space programs,” Galle says.