Thales Alenia Space Chief Touts Program Progress, Cost-cutting Efforts

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WASHINGTON — Satellite builder Thales Alenia Space said its Russian and Turkish satellite production programs are back on track after delays and that its close-quarters work with Russian companies on Europe’s ExoMars missions to Mars is proceeding on schedule despite the current hostility between Russia and the West.

The Franco-Italian company also said it is about to launch the first-ever commercial geostationary telecommunications satellite carrying 3-D-printed components, and that it had introduced robots onto its satellite manufacturing floor this year.

Iridium Next satellite
Iridium Next satellite. Credit: Iridium

In a March 18 briefing here during the Satellite 2015 conference and exhibition, Thales Alenia Space Chief Executive Jean-Loic Galle said his company’s recent work puts it in a favorable position relative to the other major satellite manufacturers to build one or more of the large satellite Internet constellations now being designed.

Thales Alenia Space is prime contractor for O3b Networks’ medium Earth orbit Ka-band broadband satellites, of which 12 are in orbit with more to be ordered this year. Thales also is building 81 Iridium Next satellites for mobile satellite operator Iridium Communications, and built the 24-satellite second-generation constellation for Iridium competitor Globalstar.

Galle said the recently disclosed four-month delay, to October, in the launch of the first two Iridium Next satellites was to allow more time to calibrate payload-test facilities on the ground. The delay had nothing to do with the state of the satellites or their payloads, he said.

He said Iridium Next will be the first major commercial program to feature software-defined satellites, and that the initial satellites “show total compliance with customer specifications.” The mating of the first two satellites’ payload and skeletal structure, or platform, is scheduled for April, he said.

OneWeb satellite
OneWeb satellite. Credit: OneWeb

Thales Alenia Space is one of five companies bidding on the 650-satellite OneWeb LLC Ku-band constellation, to deliver global Internet service from polar orbit at around 1,200 kilometers in altitude. OneWeb, based in Britain’s Channel Islands, is expected to announce a contract winner in April.

Thales Alenia Space has also been doing preliminary work for LeoSat, a proposed Ka-band constellation to deliver high-speed Internet to government and corporate customers.

Galle said the satellite constellations, combined with ongoing industry trends, are forcing manufacturers to “shift from Yves Saint Laurent to pret-a-porter design” to reduce cost and increase production speed.

The company’s success in recent constellations has not been duplicated in the more-consistent market for larger geostationary telecommunications satellites. To sharpen its competitiveness, Thales has streamlined its facilities to cut costs by 10 percent in 2014 and another 10 percent in 2015, Galle said.

The company has introduced robots at its Cannes, France, facility to build certain satellite components alongside its employees in what Galle called a “co-bot” arrangement. In one case, he said, the robot produced in six hours components that previously took a week to produce.

Thales expects to employ a similar robotic capability, borrowed from automobile manufacturing, if it wins a large satellite constellation contract.

A similar cost-cutting effort entails the use of additive manufacturing, sometimes called 3-D printing, to produce satellite components. Here the object is to reduce component mass and cost, both by 50 percent.

Meanwhile, along with its biggest European competitor, Airbus Defence and Space, Thales has made a large investment in Russia, creating a satellite joint venture and positioning itself to win business from Russian satellite fleet operators.

Galle said the company’s 2014 win of the Yamal 401 telecommunications satellite contract from Gazprom Space Systems of Moscow has been rewritten to replace a Thales-built satellite platform with one built by ISS Reshetnev of Russia. The electronics payload will remain a Thales-supplied product.

Galle said the financial arrangements accommodating the new contract terms have been concluded with Gazprom and Reshetnev, and that a formal restart should occur in the coming weeks.

ExoMars Rover prototype
ExoMars Rover prototype. Credit: Thales Alenia Space Italy

Thales is prime contractor for the European Space Agency’s ExoMars program, featuring two Russian-supplied launches and the integration of substantial Russian experiment hardware into the mission payloads. Galle said both missions, scheduled for launch in January 2016 and 2018, remain on track despite Russia’s conflict with the West over Russia’s incursion into Ukraine. “The overall environment doesn’t help,” he said, but the missions are on schedule.

Thales Alenia Space builds optical and radar imaging sensors for Earth observation satellites and is making it a priority area for export.

Thales is under contract with the Turkish government to provide the Gokturk high-resolution optical satellite and a major satellite assembly, integration and test (AIT) center near Ankara.

Galle said the satellite is about completed, but that qualification of some elements of the AIT facility was only recently completed and that it is this — and not any discussions between the French and Turkish governments — that has slowed the program. He said the AIT facility will be “the biggest and most modern” such facility in Europe and has now been qualified. The satellite should ship by the end of April, with a launch in mid-2016.

Thales Alenia Space reported revenue of more than 2.1 billion euros ($2.6 billion at Dec. 31, 2014, exchange rates) in 2014, with a record 2.2 billion euros in new orders. On the revenue side, 1.3 billion euros came from observation, exploration and navigation satellites, with 800 million euros from telecommunications satellites.