Airbus eyes opportunities in future U.S. military LEO constellations

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Airbus is ramping up satellite production in Florida and hopes to attract Pentagon buyers.

WASHINGTON — The first project of the newly created Space Development Agency will be to design a large constellation of commercially produced satellites in low Earth orbit to serve as a communications layer and take over military space missions ranging from missile tracking to navigation.

Airbus is preparing to start cranking out 32 satellites every three weeks for the broadband venture OneWeb. It built an assembly line on Florida’s Space Coast to manufacture up to 648 satellites for OneWeb but also hopes to ramp production to fill orders for the Defense Department, intelligence community and other U.S. government buyers, Nicolas Chamussy, the outgoing head of Airbus Space Systems told SpaceNews on Monday at the Satellite 2019 conference.

The company received a $2.9 million contract last fall from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to produce satellite buses for DARPA’s Blackjack program, an experiment intended to show the military utility of LEO constellations and mesh networks. DARPA will marry up commercial satellite buses with military sensors and payloads. Former DARPA official Fred Kennedy conceived the Blackjack project and is now head of the Space Development Agency. He said the SDA will tap into the commercial industry’s mass satellite production capabilities in order to build a military constellation in LEO.

Airbus’ main satellite manufacturing plant is in Toulouse, France. It now has U.S.-based design teams staffed with U.S. citizens as well as the Florida production facility, Chamussy said. “It’s an opportunity for the U.S. government” to take advantage of these capabilities, he said. The U.S. plant only builds commercial satellites but it could be expanded to produce classified spacecraft, he said.

The contract with DARPA has been valuable to Airbus to learn about U.S. defense programs and as a stepping stone to possibly other projects, Chamussy said. “With DARPA, we are learning how to work together, we are trying to understand if our platform is a valuable asset  for the U.S. government.”

The company is focused now on making satellites and installing OneWeb payloads, but “we can install whatever you want,” he said. For the military, the same satellites could carry positioning, navigation and timing (PNT), electronic warfare, Earth observation or weather payloads. “This is the beauty of have a design team and dedicated facility in U.S.,” said Chamussy.

Airbus is hoping to be chosen as the satellite supplier to Canadian satellite operator Telesat, which also received a DARPA Blackjack contract to study the use of commercial buses in LEO-based military systems.

Airbus is competing against a Maxar Technologies-Thales Alenia Space team for a contract worth an estimated $3 billion to build Telesat’s megaconstellation. Chamussy told reporters at a news conference on Monday that the company expects to submit a proposal in the coming months. “We are still waiting for the request for proposals,” he said.

Chamussy insisted that the Telesat concept is very different than OneWeb because the Canadian operator is asking for a full “end to end” system that includes not just the satellites but also ground systems and managed services.

Airbus announced last month that Chamussy will be stepping down as executive vice president of Airbus Space Systems under Airbus Defence and Space. He will be replaced by Airbus Defence and Space executive Jean-Marc Nasr. Chamussy declined to comment on whether he will stay at Airbus or in what capacity.