Ball, Lockheed Look Abroad for Earth Observation Sat Contracts

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PARIS — U.S. Earth observation satellite builders Ball Aerospace and Lockheed Martin Space Systems said they are taking a fresh look at the export markets now that their principal U.S. government customers — NASA, the Defense Department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — are in for a possibly extended budget contraction.

Officials from both companies said that, aside from the occasional bother of U.S. ITAR, or International Traffic in Arms Regulations that govern satellite component exports, they see no U.S. government restrictions that would put them at a disadvantage with respect to their European, Russian or Asian competitors.

“The onus is on us now to close the deal,” said Cary W. Ludtke, vice president for civil and operational space at Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo. “We have had outstanding support from the U.S. government on facilitating exports. There is a perception in the world community that we can’t export.”

Ed Irvin, vice president for international programs at Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., agreed that whatever has prevented U.S. companies from winning Earth observation contracts abroad, it has not been U.S. government policy.

Both companies have been able to count on U.S. government business that made chasing low-margin Earth observation satellite bidding competitions, often with government agencies as the customer, seem unattractive. That is no longer the case.

Irvin noted that Lockheed Martin already has frozen executive salaries and cut personnel in anticipation of government spending cutbacks.

Ludtke said new program starts at NASA, NOAA and the Defense Department are likely to be smaller in number and size, forcing companies like Ball to seek new terrain.

“We have two choices,” Ludtke said. “We can do the same thing, but less of it, or we can do things differently and more cost-efficiently.”

Ludtke and Irvin were both speaking Sept. 16 during the World Satellite Business Week conference in Paris organized by Euroconsult.

In recent years, three European companies — Astrium Satellites, Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. and Thales Alenia Space — have secured export orders for radar and optical Earth observation satellites in South America, Africa, and South and East Asia.

While many of these satellites are the result of relatively modest contract awards and feature small research satellites, others include higher-resolution sensors.

How far a European company can go in exporting satellite observation technology depends in part on where the prime contractor is located. Britain, France, Italy and Germany have not fully coordinated their export policies. European companies have become adept at selecting which of their divisions should bid for an award based on the likelihood of government approval.

Telespazio of Rome recently won a contract to provide Turkey with an optical observation satellite with a ground resolution of 70 centimeters, and down to 50 centimeters when the image is treated. The imager itself is being made by Thales Alenia Space of France.

U.S. and European officials for several years have said a possible large Earth observation satellite contract from a group of nations in the Arabian Gulf could be the first real showdown between U.S. and European companies.

Officials said the U.S. government has authorized a full U.S. bid.

European companies’ belief in the commercial Earth observation business goes beyond its potential for satellite orders. Astrium Satellites is building two follow-on Spot medium-resolution optical spacecraft on contract to its sister company, Astrium Services, whose Geo-Information Services division markets Earth imagery worldwide. Astrium is financing the two satellites, and their launch, on its own, with no guarantee of a government customer.

Similarly, Astrium Satellites Chief Executive Evert Dudok said during a Sept. 12 briefing that Astrium is sticking by its commitment to the German government to build a recurrent model of the TerraSAR-X radar Earth observation satellite, currently in orbit, without government support.

Dudok said that if the German Aerospace Center, DLR, wants new technology for the second TerraSAR-X that will be with government funds. But Astrium stands ready to build an exact copy otherwise. “A promise is a promise,” Dudok said.