Europe Readies First Alphasat Telecom Platform for Launch

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TOULOUSE, France — Europe’s billion-dollar Alphasat I-XL telecommunications satellite, financed by the French and European space agencies to maintain Europe’s commercial competitiveness against the likes of Boeing, Space Systems/Loral and Lockheed Martin, is being prepared for a first launch that may be the program’s last.

Alphasat I-XL has been purchased by mobile satellite services operator Inmarsat, which will use the satellite to add to its core L-band business. Inmarsat officials attending an Alphasat briefing at Astrium Satellites’ facilities here May 17 said Alphasat I-XL offers Inmarsat unsurpassed flexibility of coverage and power, allowing the company to direct power as demand requires among the satellite’s 400 spot beams.

London-based Inmarsat will operate Alphasat at 25 degrees east longitude, where the company’s Inmarsat 4F2 is currently stationed. Inmarsat Chief Technology Officer Ruy Pinto said that after six months of Alphasat I-XL operations, the Inmarsat 4F2 satellite would be moved to a new slot to broaden Inmarsat’s coverage.

When it was first approved by the 20-nation European Space Agency (ESA) and the French space agency, CNES, the Alphabus program, which funded Alphasat I-XL’s development, was intended to have Europe’s two big satellite prime contractors work together on a satellite design they could use when bidding jointly on big international commercial programs.

It has not quite worked that way. Astrium Satellites and Thales Alenia Space continue to bid together on the occasional program, but they are mainly commercial telecommunications competitors. Neither has won a competition using the Alphabus/Alphasat design, which is too heavy for most commercial satellite projects.

Alphabus/Alphasat is designed to provide up to 22 kilowatts of on-board power on a satellite whose launch mass could be up to 8,800 kilograms. At one point it appeared the commercial market was moving in that direction, and that Boeing and Space Systems/Loral had products that appealed to it.

To keep Europe in the race, ESA agreed to invest some 438 million euros, which when expressed in today’s currency is more than 500 euros, or $650 million. The French space agency invested a lesser sum on its own. ESA is flying four technology demonstration payloads on Alphasat I-XL, including a laser communications terminal and a new-generation star tracker, that Inmarsat has agreed to operate for at least three years.

Later in the program’s development, ESA made Alphasat into a public-private partnership with Inmarsat. Inmarsat Chief Executive Rupert Pearce said here May 17 that the company has spent $370 million on Alphasat I-XL, a figure that includes the satellite’s construction, insurance and launch aboard a European Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket.

Inmarsat’s financing of the program was helped by a low-interest European Investment Bank loan of up to 225 million euros, and by financial support from several British regional governments in support of Astrium’s British operation.

Alphasat I-XL is currently scheduled for launch in late July from Europe’s Guiana Space Center in South America.

But if Alphabus/Alphasat as an integrated product no longer seems to coincide with the commercial market, several technologies developed for it have found their way into the current commercial satellite platforms of both Astrium Satellites and Thales Alenia Space.

These technologies include a 100-volt power supply regulator that Astrium has inserted into its Eurostar production line; a plasma-electric propulsion system, called PPS 1350 developed by Snecma of France; and a communications module structure that permits heavier payloads to be supported by a satellite’s main structure.

Eric Beranger, chief executive of Astrium Satellites, said the company is still integrating an Alphabus/Alphasat offer into commercial bids. While it is not at the core of today’s commercial demand, Alphasat is well suited to certain high-power applications, of which mobile communications such as Inmarsat’s service is only one, Beranger said.

Inmarsat and Astrium officials here stressed above all the digital signal processor that Astrium provided for Alphasat I-XL. 

Pinto said the processor is actually eight integrated signal processors, working in two groups of four, with a combined mass of nearly 250 kilograms. Each of the processors is composed of 17 core computers. The ensemble is capable of performing 2 trillion operations per second.

It is this technology that will give Alphasat IX-L its ability to move power and thus bandwidth around the coverage area of the satellite, which includes all of Africa, the Middle East, most of Europe and Central Asia.

Other commercial satellite operators have said they are seeking flexibility but cannot afford the cost of a digital signal processor. As a result, they opt for bent-pipe satellites that do not feature on-board processing. But with ESA and CNES in the financial loop, Inmarsat concluded that Alphabus/Alphasat was good value for money, Pearce said.

Whether other commercial operators will come to the same conclusion without ESA and CNES remains to be seen.