CNES Tech Budget Focused on Competitiveness in Telecom Satellites

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TOULOUSE, France — The French space agency, CNES, is aligning its research and technology budget behind an attempt to increase French and European satellite telecommunications prime contractors’ share of the global commercial market to 50 percent by 2020, up from 30 percent now, CNES officials said Jan. 30.

Europe’s principal weapon in the battle for increased market share is the Neosat satellite platform, developed in collaboration with the 20-nation European Space Agency and employing an all-electric propulsion system to reduce satellite weight and launch costs, as well as other new technologies.

CNES doubled its participation in ESA’s ARTES telecommunications research program in 2012, mainly because of Neosat, which is scheduled to make its first flight by 2019. CNES has increased its overall telecommunications-related research by 30 percent from the four-year period ending in 2012 to the four-year period ending in 2016.

But CNES wants to give France’s two satellite prime contractors, Airbus Defence and Space, and Thales Alenia Space, enough research help so that both could begin introducing Neosat technologies well before 2019, CNES officials said here Jan. 30 during the annual CNES R&T Day.

Unlike many European space technology sessions, the CNES research team made barely a mention of emerging markets as competitors. The clear focus was on U.S. satellite prime contractors and, to a lesser extent, Asian manufacturers.

CNES officials were at a loss to explain how, after more than a decade of working with Russian companies to develop electric propulsion in Europe, CNES and European industry now find themselves playing catch-up to Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, Calif., which has booked the first commercial sales for all-electric satellites. Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Space Systems Loral are also designing all-electric versions of their satellite platforms.

Airbus Defence and Space alone has flown seven commercial satellites with electric propulsion for in-orbit station-keeping without a hitch, using Russian-heritage technology modified for European satellites by Snecma of France.

Whatever the reasons — among them the emergence of U.S.-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s low-cost Falcon 9 launcher, which can carry two all-electric satellites at a time — CNES officials agree Europe is now chasing the United States. Neosat is viewed as the European response to the U.S. advance. 

Europe’s previous attempt to jump-start a competitive industrial edge in satellites was the large Alphabus platform developed by CNES and ESA, the first model of which is now in orbit and operated by Inmarsat of London. It is working well but is considered too heavy for today’s market. 

Alphasat also suffered from forcing the two competitors, Airbus and Thales Alenia, to develop a common platform using Alphabus advances, meaning neither company viewed Alphabus as its own product.

The two prime contractors are expected to develop their own platforms using Neosat technology based on their current product lines. Neosat is designed to support payloads of between 3 kilowatts and 22 kilowatts of power. One early user of the Neosat platform could be CNES’s planned THD Sat, or Very High Bandwidth Satellite, which among other features will carry a 5-meter-diameter depoyable antenna. 

Christophe Allemand, head of the telecommunications research division at CNES, said the 50 percent market share target is only for satellites and does not include the related ground segment.

European satellite operators and governments have complained in the past that European high-throughput satellites — Eutelsat’s 90-gigabit-per-second Ka-Sat is the best-known example — are forced to use U.S.-provided ground networks, including user terminals, because of an insufficient work on European alternatives.

The latest CNES R&T spending plan continues that trend and has little focus on ground infrastructure.

The R&T spending plan is a curious mix of technology developments with no relationship to any existing or planned commercial or scientific program, and the commercially minded stress on helping French companies in the marketplace. 

Marc Pircher, head of CNES’s large Toulouse Space Center, said the R&T program is a deliberate technology push, preparing the ground for a wide range of technologies without knowing which will turn into missions so that, when a relevant satellite program comes around, its risk is reduced.

Anne Cadiou, head of the service responsible for technology development, said the 2014 R&T funding is 19 million euros, flat from 2013. The figure corresponds to the funds available for external contracts with prime contractors, component builders, research laboratories and others. In addition to this cash outlay, CNES has dedicated the equivalent of 65 full-time personnel to the R&T effort. That figure does not include the CNES-ESA Neosat project team.

Cadiou said that even with an upstream technology focus, the R&T program has produced technologies that have found their way aboard eight satellites now in orbit, the result of a CNES demonstrator program started in 2004.

The technologies that began with no specific program in mind but since have been integrated into satellites include fiber-optic gyroscopes, fifth-generation lithium-ion batteries, image-compression systems, new-generation star sensors and X-band telemetry systems for very small satellites.

 

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