Turkey’s Gokturk-1 Reconnaissance Satellite Finally Cleared for Export

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CANNES, France – Turkey’s high-resolution Gokturk-1 optical reconnaissance satellite, which was completed months ago but held up because of a dispute over the readiness of an elaborate satellite test and assembly center in Turkey, has been cleared for shipment May 7.

More than two years behind schedule, Gokturk-1 suffered the complexities of a three-nation effort ­— Turkey, France and Italy — and the strains of being the world’s first export of a satellite with a ground resolution sharper than 1 meter.

The mid-2009 contract went through months of discussions in the three nations about what protocols should attach to the contract. At one point work came to a standstill for over a year as both Turkey and its suppliers mulled throwing in the towel.

More recently, the completed satellite was put in storage at builder Thales Alenia Space’s facility here as Thales, Telespazio of Italy and the Turkish Undersecretariat for Defense Industries, SSM, debated whether the Ankara assembly, integration and test (AIT) facility was fully operational.

Construction of the AIT center is nearly as important as the satellite itself to the Gokturk contract. Now scheduled for formal inauguration in mid-May, the facility — 2,500 square meters of clean rooms, a 3-by-3-by-6-meter thermal-vacuum chamber capable of handling 5,000-kilogram telecommunications satellites, a compact antenna-test range and other features — will spearhead Turkey’s drive to satellite independence.

At an April 23 briefing here, Telespazio, Thales Alenia Space and SSM officials sought to minimize past difficulties and highlight the fact that the program now appears about to deliver on its promise.

Celal Sami Tufekci, head of Turkey's space department
Celal Sami Tufekci, head of Turkey’s space department, Turkish Undersecretariat for Defense Industries. Credit: Thales Alenia Space

“Of course we’re not happy with the delays,” said Celal Sami Tufekci, head of SSM’s space department. “There were lots of issues regarding export licenses. Some of these issues could have been avoided because the original contract identifies everything. But the fact is that this project was the first of its kind.”

The world of satellite Earth observation is changing fast. DigitalGlobe of the United States recently started commercializing 30-centimeter imagery with the blessing of the U.S. government. Thales Alenia Space and its rival and sometime partner, Airbus Defense and Space, have since sold submetric optical reconnaissance systems to the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Peru, and France’s Pleiades satellites are used both for commercial sales and by French and European military forces.

Herve Hamy of Thales Alenia Space said the company has now booked orders for 13 submetric optical reconnaissance satellites starting with the French Helios military spacecraft launched starting in the mid-1990s.

Thales Alenia Space has recently built, on the Cannes site here, a satellite AIT center dedicated for optical Earth observation payloads — an indication of how promising the export market now looks.

But when the Gokturk-1 contract was signed in July 2009, it was a trailblazer. Rome-based Telespazio, a satellite services company that is part of the Thales-Finmeccanica Space Alliance that includes Thales Alenia Space, was selected as Gokturk-1 prime contractor in part to avoid French-Turkish political turbulence.

SSM and its contractors declined to disclose many details about Gokturk-1, including its precise ground resolution and details of its capacity to swivel on its axis to take photos in front of and behind the nadir track in addition to side to side.

The 1,000-kilogram Gokturk-1 carries rigid gallium-arsenide solar arrays and high-torque reaction wheels to facilitate swiveling. It is designed to operate for seven years in a 681-kilometer polar sun-synchronous orbit, although Thales Alenia Space officials say it is almost certain to operate much longer than that.

Vittorio Pagni, head of the Gokturk Joint Program Office at Telespazio, said a fixed image-reception facility is being built in Ankara, Turkey, with a mobile ground segment, meaning a truck-transportable station, provided by ViaSat Inc. of Carlsbad, California. Gokturk-1 imagery is sent from the satellite through an X-band link.

In addition to the AIT center in Ankara, the contract includes long-lead items for a twin Gokturk-1b satellite. SSM had required sufficient spare parts so that, in the event of a launch failure, the second satellite could be built and launched within two years.

Tufekci said SSM and the Turkish Air Force, which is Gokturk-1’s final customer, have not decided whether to proceed with completion of a second satellite following a successful launch aboard a European Vega rocket. The launch is now scheduled for late 2016.

Gokturk-1 is part of a detailed Turkish space-development program that includes a Gokturk-3 synthetic-aperture radar reconnaissance satellite now in design in Turkey, and civil-military telecommunications satellites.

Tufekci said Turkey’s goal of autonomy in satellite production can only be reached if a cadre of Turkish engineers is developed and maintained through work on export orders in addition to domestic demand.

“Without exports, this would not be sustainable,” Tufekci said. “This has to be come an industry that is maintained over time in Turkey. It is a long-term effort, we know it won’t be easy, but this is what we are doing.”

Officials said the original contract price of about 300 million euros — $323 million at current exchange rates — has not moved despite the delays and de facto work stoppage.

“It is a firm, fixed-price contract,” Tufekci said. “The delays have been a problem for us in that we wanted the satellite earlier, and a problem for the contractors because of the fixed-price aspect.”