Thales Alenia Space Details Elaborate Tech Transfer Deal with Brazil

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RIO DE JANEIRO — Satellite builder Thales Alenia Space of Europe, as part of what may be the most elaborate satellite technology-transfer contract ever signed, will be joining forces with Brazilian companies to develop local expertise in satellite thermal control, onboard propulsion, solar arrays and ground support, the company’s chief representative in Brazil said.

Other areas to be a focus of contracts include onboard optical instruments and optical instrument base plates.

The contracts, coordinated with the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB), are part of a broader agreement signed in late 2013 whose centerpiece is the civil-military Strategic Defense and Communications Geostationary Satellite (SGDC), whose launch is scheduled for 2016.

To manage the SGDC contract, Brazilian authorities created a joint venture, called Visiona Tecnologia Espacial, between aircraft builder Embraer and telecommunications provider Telebras.

Several dozen engineers from the Brazilian government’s civilian and military branches have begun working in Cannes, France, on the design of the satellite, which passed its critical design review earlier this year.

Joel Chenet Thales Alenia
Joel Chenet, Thales’ senior vice president for Brazil. Credit: Thales Alenia Space

“By September or October we expect to be mating the payload module with the service module,” said Joel Chenet, Thales’ senior vice president for Brazil. “So far things are going smoothly and on schedule.” The 5,800-kilogram satellite will carry a military X-band and civilian Ka-band payload, with the latter used to provide broadband connectivity to remote communities.

Including launch, the contract was valued at 1.3 billion reals, or $588 million, with Visiona signing for the Brazilian side.

If that was the end of the story, the Thales-Brazil linkup would resemble numerous technology-transfer deals that are viewed as key elements to developing nations’ space technology programs.

But the Brazilians wanted much more and were able to get it. A separate contract, valued at about $80 million, between AEB and Thales calls for five years of what both sides call “technology absorption.”

AEB selects companies that, while having little or no satellite expertise, are viewed as promising candidates for a future Brazilian satellite industrial base in telecommunications, Earth observation and other applications embedded in Brazil’s 10-year space plan.

Addressing an April 15 briefing here during the Latin America Aerospace and Defense exhibition, Chenet said FINEP, the Brazilian government agency responsible for technology development, and AEB are expected to formalize contracts by this fall with the selected Brazilian companies.

The amount of funding that FINEP and AEB have to invest in this is unclear because of an ongoing review of Brazil’s 2015 space budget. But given the state of the program so far, it is unlikely to face cancellation even if its 2015 work package is reduced from previous forecasts.

FINEP and AEB, not Thales, will be responsible for sending out bid proposals and selecting the winners, Chenet said.

The typical contract with the selected companies will last for three years, with the first year spent training in France or Italy — Thales Alenia Space is majority owned by Thales Group of France, with Italy’s Finmeccanica owning a minority stake — followed by two years in Brazil under the tutelage of European satellite veterans.

“The idea is that we would help them do a first model of what the contract calls for, and then they do the work after that,” Chenet said. Professors from France’s Sup’Aero aerospace university will be lecturing in Brazil as part of the program, he said.

Ultimately, Brazil’s INPE space technology institute and Thales plan to create a space academy in Brazil to feed what is intended to be a stable supply chain for Brazilian satellite contracts and, later, international contracts.

“We are starting with the optical technologies this year, and the idea is to go beyond what Brazil has proved it can do with the CBERS [China-Brazil Earth observation satellite program, which has built four satellites] and get down to 1.5- to 2-meter resolution,” Chenet said. “Within four or five years, Brazil should be able to deliver its own optical Earth observation satellite.”

How much of the program will result in additional contracts for Thales Alenia Space is unclear. Already AEB is preparing a competition for a small ocean-observation satellite, called SCD-Hidro, for which Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. of Britain, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. and perhaps other prospective suppliers are readying bids.