PARIS — The United Arab Emirates Armed Forces on July 22 contracted with Astrium Satellites and Thales Alenia Space of France to provide the two-satellite Falcon Eye high-resolution optical reconnaissance system.

The contract, which has been in negotiation in one form or another for well over a decade, is valued at 800 million euros, or nearly $1.1 billion at current exchange rates. The figure includes the construction of two satellites weighing less than 1,500 kilograms each; their separate launches in late 2017 and early 2018, likely aboard European Vega rockets; two ground facilities for satellite control and image reception; and training of UAE personnel in France.

Industry officials did not detail the precise characteristics of the two satellites beyond saying they would use the same satellite platform as the French government’s two Pleiades satellites, which operate in 700-kilometer polar low Earth orbits. The Pleiades satellites are capable of detecting objects as small as 70 centimeters in diameter, and 50 centimeters after the images are enhanced in a process called resampling.

Thales Alenia Space will be providing the Falcon Eye imaging payload, with Astrium Satellites building the platform. Both companies said their hardware would be upgraded versions of what they built for Pleiades, which is used by the French Defense Ministry and by Astrium Services Geo-Information division for commercial sales.

The contract was signed in Abu Dhabi during a ceremony presided over by Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE crown prince, who is also head of the UAE armed forces; and by Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French defense minister.

French industry officials said the French government’s backing of the joint Astrium-Thales Alenia Space bid was instrumental in concluding the contract, which some in the satellite industry had begun to view as a desert mirage. UAE officials, with partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council and later on their own, have been weighing the Falcon Eye project since the mid-1990s.

Given the UAE’s status as a U.S. ally, Falcon Eye was viewed as a rare opportunity in which U.S. industry, which up to now has been a bystander in the growing global market for Earth observation satellite sales, would have a legitimate chance for a breakthrough export sale. Astrium and Thales Alenia Space, separately and as a team, have sold more than a dozen systems to customers in East Asia, Central Asia and elsewhere.

UAE officials in late 2012 said they had narrowed the Falcon Eye competition from 11 bidders and their backing governments to proposals from U.S. and French teams. With a loosening of U.S. export restrictions, they said, U.S. bidders were fully engaged and ended up in the finals against the Astrium-Thales Alenia Space team.

The question then became one of delivery dates, image-taking autonomy and price, industry officials said. Lockheed Martin and DigitalGlobe of the United States evaluated a bid that would start with the nearly completed GeoEye-2 satellite, which Longmont, Colo.-based DigitalGlobe plans to place into storage for several years, and would be complemented by a new spacecraft built by Lockheed Martin.

Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., and Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems of Aurora, Colo., were also pursuing the Falcon Eye work.

Whether the U.S. State Department’s restrictions on the use of the system, often referred to as “shutter control,” tipped the bidding in the favor of France is unclear. French government officials in the past have said their image-export policy tracks fairly closely with that of the United States.

On delivery schedules, the DigitalGlobe/Lockheed Martin bid had the advantage of the fact that GeoEye-2 is already built or nearly so. Given its ability to detect objects as small as 34 centimeters in diameter, it may have required a “dumbing down” to the 50-centimeter limit that the U.S. permits for commercial sales without special government authorization.

“I don’t know whether the UAE was using the U.S. bid as a rabbit to force us to reduce our price, but I can tell you we took it extremely seriously and acted as if it was a serious competitor,” one French industry official said. “Our impression was that the U.S. price was higher, but that this was not the most important of the criteria. Delivery schedule and autonomy were higher priorities.”

Jean-Loic Galle, chief executive of Thales Alenia Space, said in a July 22 interview from Abu Dhabi that Thales Alenia Space’s share of the contract amounts to 300 million euros as co-prime contractor and that some 500 Thales Alenia Space employees and subcontractors would be working on the program. He said both the mirror and the focal plane of the Pleiades system have been modernized for Falcon Eye, but he declined to provide technical specifications.

Eric Beranger, chief executive of Astrium Satellites, said in a July 22 interview that about 1,000 French engineers and other technicians, at Astrium, Thales Alenia Space and their contractors, would be employed for Falcon Eye.

Beranger said an important aspect of the contract was the training of UAE engineers in France in advance of delivery of the satellites. Both French companies have done this before in reconnaissance systems sold in Turkey, Kazakhstan and elsewhere.


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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.