Astrium Services Hopes Broad X-band Coverage Will Draw U.S. Government Business

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PARIS — Astrium Services, which owns Britain’s Skynet 5 X-band military telecommunications satellites, hopes to leverage the coming launch of an X-band payload on a commercial satellite to offer the U.S. government near-global coverage in X-band, Astrium Chief Executive Eric Beranger said Sept. 10.

Astrium Services has ordered a fourth Skynet 5 satellite, Skynet 5D, which is scheduled for launch in December. Also scheduled for launch late this year is the Anik G1 satellite owned by satellite fleet operator Telesat of Canada.

Astrium has leased Anik G1’s X-band secondary payload for the satellite’s full 15-year life. With Anik G1 and Skynet 5D in operation, Astrium Services will come close to ringing the world with X-band coverage.

Through its Vizada mobile satellite services distributor, which Astrium purchased in late 2011, Astrium Services in August won a piece of the U.S. government’s five-year Future Comsatcom Services Acquisition’s Custom Satcom Solutions contract.

Astrium is not guaranteed to win any business from this indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract; it is just one of eight companies winning similar contract vehicles. But with a total contract value of $2.6 billion over five years, and Astrium’s X-band portfolio without equal in the private sector, the General Services Administration contract was “a huge success” that gets Astrium Services firmly in the tent of approved U.S. government contractors, Beranger said.

Previous Astrium Services contracts with the U.S. government, he said, have been as the backseat partner with a U.S. company as the main contractor.

Astrium Services is under a long-term contract with the British Ministry of Defence to provide beyond-line-of-sight telecommunications to British forces. Excess capacity that Astrium places into orbit may be used for commercial sales to British allies.

Astrium recently tested an aeronautical mobile X-band terminal, called AirPatrol, with military forces in Canada. The value of the trial was to preserve a link between the Convair CV-580 aircraft and the Skynet 5C X-band satellite long enough and with enough quality to transfer large files of radar imagery taken by the aircraft as part of Canada’s Radar and Imaging for the Land/Littoral Environment program.

The tests were done at 73 degrees north latitude, meaning the aircraft’s AirPatrol terminal was facing downward to aim at the satellite 36,000 kilometers over the equator, Beranger said. The signal carrying the radar images had to travel through the atmosphere before arriving at Skynet 5C for subsequent download to Canadian program managers.

While Astrium Services has promoted X-band’s alleged superiority over Ka-band for mobile military communications, Beranger declined to say whether a Ka-band link would have permitted the data stream to arrive at Skynet 5C without attenuation due to the thick layer of atmosphere between the plane and the satellite.

Military satellite communications is the most important business for Astrium Services in terms of revenue, but the company is also a provider of government and commercial Earth observation imagery through optical and radar Earth observation satellites.

Astrium Services is the operator of the European Data Relay Service, which for now is based on two payloads — one a dedicated data-relay satellite, the other a data-relay terminal on a Eutelsat commercial telecommunications satellite — to relay Earth observation data from low-orbiting observation satellites to ground users.

The system is scheduled to be operational within three years and is already funded by Astrium Services and the 19-nation European Space Agency.

European governments are weighing whether to add a third data-relay platform to the system, which would enable Astrium Services to offer global data-relay services. Beranger suggested that, as with the existing data-relay system, Astrium would be a willing financial contributor to any government effort to co-sponsor a third data-relay system.

“It would be a very, very, very serious plus” for the data-relay effort to offer a third payload, he said.

Astrium Services’ own medium-resolution satellites, the Spot 6 satellite launched Sept. 9 and the Spot 7 scheduled for launch in 2014, will not benefit from the data-relay capability as they were designed without data-relay terminals. The same is true of the two high-resolution Pleiades satellites, owned by the French government, to which Astrium has access as the exclusive commercial agent.

Once the second Pleiades satellite, Pleiades 1B, is operational in early 2013 and the Spot 7 is launched in 2014, Astrium will be able to offer customers the possibility of taking an image anywhere in the world within six hours. The four satellites — two Pleiades and two Spot spacecraft — will be spaced 90 degrees apart in a 700-kilometer polar low Earth orbit.

Beranger said Astrium Services is uncertain whether the merger of its two U.S. competitors, DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo., and GeoEye of Herndon, Va., is good news or bad news for the European company.

On the one hand, he said, it assembles a single company with a near-monopoly on U.S. government image sales and with strengthened financial resources. “That’s the potentially bad news,” Beranger said. “A potential plus for us is that the U.S. basically has one player in the business, and anyone interested in having an alternative to the sole U.S. player will be able to look to us.”

Beranger said Astrium’s 30 percent increase in revenue in 2011 from radar Earth observation data — the company co-owns two radar satellites with the German government — will not be repeated in 2012, mainly because the U.S. government has reduced its purchases of radar data.