Italy’s Sitael gets Platino contract for Vega-optimised small satellites

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WASHINGTON — The Italian Space Agency on Dec. 19 signed Sitael as the prime contractor for a new 200-kilogram small satellite line called Platino, meant to pair Italy’s strength in light launch with an aptly designed product.

Platino is an all-electric satellite platform for high-performance missions in telecommunications, remote sensing or science missions, optimized to launch on Vega, the light-lift rocket Colleferro, Italy-based Avio produces.

The Platino project “foresees the production of two satellites, each with different payloads, in order to validate the platform itself,” Nicola Zaccheo, Sitael’s CEO, told SpaceNews by email. “The first will be launched Q3 2019 [followed by] the second one 18 months later.”

Not unlike Vega, which the Italian Space Agency (ASI) promoted for years with the European Space Agency before becoming a reality, Platino is part of Italy’s quest to develop and ensure a domestic space industry with a meaningful place on the international stage.

In a Dec. 19 statement, Italian Space Agency President Roberto Battiston said Platino gives “the foundations of the development for a competitive asset on the international market,” with satellites “based on components designed and manufactured in Italy at [the] industrial level.”

Anna Sirica, ASI’s director general, similarly hailed Platino as a product that will provide Italy “with several new technologies that can be used extensively on other segments of satellite systems developed by the European industry.”

Battiston said Platino should have “a natural propensity to develop satellite constellations,” which he called “the great challenge of the next years in space.”

Constellations in low Earth orbit with dozens or hundreds of satellites are the industry’s zeitgeist in both Earth observation and telecommunications, and Sitael is not alone in pursuing this market. Several major satellite manufacturers, including Lockheed Martin, Space Systems Loral and Surrey Science and Technology Limited (an Airbus subsidiary) have modernized small satellite offerings, and startups such as York Space Systems are preparing more platforms.

Sitael’s partners on Platino include Thales Alenia Space, Space Engineering and Leonardo, all of which are in Italy. Zaccheo said Sitael’s goal is to differentiate Platino with high performance characteristics, such as long life in very low orbits, inter-satellite links and miniaturized control moment gyroscopes (CMGs) for very accurate pointing. The consortium will seek to bring a satellite from order to launch in less than 12 months, he said.

Zaccheo declined to specify the value of the Platino contract, saying only that it is worth “several tens of millions of Euro.”

Platino’s baseline launcher is Vega through SSMS, the Small Spacecraft Mission Service adapter Avio and ESA are developing. SSMS is designed to accommodate small satellites from cubesats to spacecraft weighing a few hundred kilograms, and has a first launch scheduled for late 2018 or early 2019.

Vega can launch around 1,500 kilograms to a 700-kilometer orbit, and will get a performance boost to 2,200 kilograms with the next generation Vega C in 2019. Other launcher options in addition to Vega will also be available, Zaccheo said.