Morocco satellite launch could accelerate Spanish space efforts

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WARSAW, Poland — Morocco’s launch of its Mohammed 6-A satellite last November could accelerate Spain’s work on its SeoSat/Ingenio optical Earth-observation satellite, which is expected to launch in late 2019 or early 2020.

Morocco and Spain have struggled to boost their satellite observation capacities since the Perejil Island crisis in 2002 when Spain could not acquire satellite images of the island following reports of its occupation by the Moroccan Navy.

Mohammed 6-A was developed by a consortium formed by Thales Alenia Space, which acted as the prime system contractor, and Airbus Defence and Space, which served as co-prime. The satellite launched Nov. 7 to low Earth orbit on an Arianespace Vega rocket from Kourou, French Guiana.

Airbus is developing SeoSat/Ingenio on behalf of the Spanish government, with the Madrid-based Center for Development of Industrial Technology (CDTI) funding the mission. It is the optical counterpart to the country’s PAZ synthetic aperture radar mission that is slated for launch this January, having overcome a three-year delay because of Russia’s unwillingness to permit Dnepr launches by switching in March to a SpaceX Falcon 9.

The project development of SeoSat/Ingenio is overseen by the European Space Agency (ESA) as a national contribution within the framework of Europe under a procurement assistance agreement signed between ESA and the CDTI in 2007.

Andrés Borges, the program manager for SeoSat/Ingenio at Airbus Defence and Space, told SpaceNews that the group has to subcontract most of the flight equipment and take care of the assembly, integration and test campaign for the satellite’s structural, functional and flight aspects. Airbus is also responsible for manufacturing the satellite’s platform structure and harness, and manages the development of the image processor prototype.

“Once the satellite is integrated at our clean rooms and the test campaigns are finalized, Airbus will take responsibility of the launch campaign and … collaborate with the European Space Agency during the launch and early operation phase (LEOP) and in-orbit commissioning (IOC) phases,” Borges said.

According to the SeoSat/Ingenio program manager, the Spanish satellite will be launched from Kourou onboard an Italian Vega launcher.

Launcher contract to determine launch date

“The best estimate for the launch date is end 2019 or the first months of 2020. It will depend on the launcher contract signature and the launcher availability,” said Borges. CDTI is funding the mission, including launch. “Airbus will be in charge of the launch campaign [which means it will] support the launcher authority to set the satellite in the launcher fairing. Once in orbit, Airbus will lead the LEOP and IOC phases.”

The total cost for the flight segment, which includes the satellite, platform and instrument, is about 125 million euros ($149.5 million), according to the program manager.

“The ground segment and the launcher are not within Airbus perimeter and we are not completely sure of the financial figures,” Borges said.

Morocco launched the country’s first microsatellite in 2001 when it’s Maroc-TUBSAT (Zarkae Al Yamama), a joint undertaking between the country’s Royal Centre for Remote Sensing and the German Technical University of Berlin, hitched a ride on a Zenit-2 rocket whose primary payload was the Russian Meteor-3M satellite. Morocco is expected to launch Mohammed 6-B, the second in a pair of Earth-observation satellites, in 2018.

Spain nears SAR satellite launch

The SeoSat/Ingenio is part of Spain’s National Earth Observation Satellite Program (PNOTS) whose second component is PAZ, a satellite that was also built by Airbus Defence and Space. Owned by Spain’s satellite operator Hisdesat, PAZ is an X-band synthetic aperture radar (SAR) mission.

Under the plan, the satellite is to be placed on the same orbit with German TerraSAR and TanDEM-X satellites to form a SAR constellation. Hisdesat communications director Araceli Serrano told SpaceNews the launch of PAZ remains forecasted for Jan. 30. PAZ is already in California to be prepared for this,” he said.

Serrano says the Spanish company has a duty of confidentiality in respect to SpaceX, and, due to this, it cannot reveal the value of the contract. As a 1,400 kilogram satellite, PAZ is less than a tenth the mass a Falcon 9 can carry to low Earth orbit.

Budding regional space rivalry?

Meanwhile, Algeria, another regional rival of Morocco, successfully launched its first communication satellite from China on Dec. 11. A Long March-3B launch vehicle took Alcomsat-1 to orbit from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China’s Sichuan province.

The Algerian satellite was launched by China Great Wall Industry Corp., who acted as the prime contractor. The Alcomsat-1 was designed and manufactured by the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST).

“The successful launch of [the] Alcomsat-1 is the good beginning of space cooperation between [the] two countries. More cooperation, more space programs are expected to be initiated soon,” the Chinese company said in a Dec. 11 statement.