Airbus Defence and Space is "the only manufacturer today that has sold electric propulsion for large, high-power satellites,” Eric Beranger, head of the company’s satellite division, said. Credit: Jean-Francois Deroubaix

PARIS — Europe’s two largest satellite prime contractors are expected to issue bid requests from subcontractors on a new telecommunications satellite platform whose goal is to assure European commercial competitiveness with its U.S., Japanese, Chinese, Russian and other competitors.

Financed by the French and European space agencies with industrial co-investment, the Neosat program is targeting a 30 percent decrease in the cost of a megahertz of capacity into geostationary orbit. The program also aims to increase in European market share to 50 percent around 2021.

The end result of the program, government and industry officials said, will be a much smaller European telecommunications satellite supplier base that produces a higher volume of goods for both prime contractors, Airbus Defence and Space and Thales Alenia Space.

The European Space Agency is investing 18.2 million euros ($25 million) for the one-year preparatory phase that includes a competitive selection of suppliers that will deliver identical products into separate platforms to be developed by Airbus and Thales Alenia.

Acknowledging that a 30 percent decrease in in-orbit costs might be achieved with the advent of lower-cost launch vehicles, the two satellite builders have agreed between themselves to a 30 percent cost reduction to be imposed on their supply chains.

“Our goal is to employ intelligent architectures for our future Eurostar satellite platform line and at the same time to give our suppliers the guarantee of a higher production volume,” said Eric Beranger, head of Airbus’ satellite manufacturing division.

France’s contribution is coming from a public bond fund, whose support for technology innovation is likely to end, in Neosat’s case, with the program’s preliminary design review.

ESA’s support will continue to development of early flight-model hardware, with technology support requiring matching industry funds whose amount will vary depending on whether it is new or proven technology that is used for Neosat.

ESA is managing Neosat as a program that obeys the agency’s geographic-return principle, which guarantees participating governments that their industry will receive contracts proportionate to individual government participation.

In the past, this way of doing business has led to a proliferation of small component builders that have trouble surviving much beyond the initial ESA-generated work.

But Beranger and Sami Ben Amor, director of product policy at Thales Alenia Space, insisted in interviews that competitiveness, and not geographic return, will drive Neosat.

“Our two companies are 100 percent aligned on this point,” Ben Amor said. “If we see a product from Airbus that is more competitive than the one we make in-house, we’ll select it for Neosat. And if a proven technology turns out to be more competitive than the promise of a new technology, we’ll chose the proven product even if that does not get as much financial aid from governments.”

Britain, Sweden, Switzerland and Luxembourg are participating in Neosat.

In its first iteration, Neosat was seen as a response to Boeing’s all-electric 702SP satellite product, first announced two years ago. But in the past year industry has reconsidered how electric propulsion will enter the market and concluded that conventional chemical propulsion will remain viable. 

In addition, industry officials said, hybrid chemical/electric systems that reduce satellite weight through electric motors but retain some chemical propellant to reduce the time it takes to get to geostationary orbit are likely to find market backing.

Airbus has been using electric propulsion for a decade, but only to maintain satellites stably in orbit. Irrespective of what is developed through Neosat, Airbus is already offering in commercial bids an all-electric option using propulsion units from Fakel of Russia.

Ben Amor said Thales Alenia Space will not have an all-electric propulsion offer ready for the market until the Neosat development is sufficiently advanced, around 2015-2016. 

Hardware construction for Neosat is scheduled to start in 2015 for flight prototypes, with an in-orbit demonstration through a commercial purchase by a satellite operator to occur in 2018 or 2019, ESA has said.

Beranger said the goal of a 50 percent market share for European industry in a decade is feasible, especially if Thales Alenia Space — whose geostationary satellite market share has dipped in the past couple of years — returns in force.

“By our estimate we already have a 20 percent market share at Airbus,” Beranger said. “Raising that to 25 percent or higher will be a challenge but we think we can do it.”

Ben Amor said Thales Alenia Space, whose chief executive has highlighted the company’s lower market share as an issue, will be using Neosat to address the problem.

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