Thales Alenia Space (TAS) is laying groundwork for a small satellite factory in Italy that it hopes will be at the forefront of constellation manufacturing in Europe, bringing the continent closer to mass production capabilities across the Atlantic.

The joint venture between Thales of France and Leonardo of Italy aims to have the “Space Smart Factory” up and running by mid-2025 in Rome, three kilometers from where the company integrates 700-kilogram-plus Galileo navigation satellites in a facility geared for larger spacecraft.

Although the new 21,000-square-meter facility could also be used for large satellites, Massimo Comparini, head of the company’s Italian operations, said the main goal is to churn out a couple of 200-kilogram satellites a week if it can find the customers.

More than 100 million euros ($110 million) is being invested to set up the factory, supported by funds the Italian government set aside for boosting the country’s economy following the pandemic.

Less than a third of this investment is coming from Italy’s National Plan for Recovery and Resilience, Comparini told SpaceNews, with the company stumping up the rest. “It’s quite a large investment,” he said, but “it’s going to boost our competitiveness and our production capacity in the coming years.”

The facility will include 5,000 square meters of clean rooms. That’s a third of what TAS has at facilities in Cannes, France, where it also assembles satellites. However, Comparini said the new plant would incorporate more advanced technologies, and leverage collaborative workspaces to support small and medium-sized businesses that have partnered on satellite projects.

Alongside advanced manufacturing tools using the latest breakthroughs in artificial intelligence to accelerate production, Comparini said the Space Smart Factory would manage workflow information more efficiently to guard against supply chain disruption.

COVID-19 hit the space industry hard in 2020, delaying satellite projects and increasing costs across the sector. Blaming supply and funding issues stemming from the pandemic, Canada’s Telesat recently switched from TAS to domestic satellite maker MDA to build its Lightspeed constellation of at least 198 satellites.

Lightspeed’s loss was another blow for the European space giant’s ambitions to get more constellation business after successfully delivering them for Globalstar and Iridium of the United States. TAS also built first-generation O3b Network satellites for Luxembourg-based SES, which pivoted to U.S.-based Boeing for the second-generation currently being deployed in orbit. MDA and Rocket Lab are providing the latest generation of satellites for Globalstar.

TAS not only faces tough competition internationally, but also from its main rival Airbus closer to home. There are also younger upstarts to contend with, such as NanoAvionics, the Lithuania-based small satellite maker recently bought by Norway’s Kongsberg Defence & Aerospace.

TAS, though, benefits from expansive infrastructure across Europe. Its work for constellations has produced satellite platforms in Cannes, payloads from Toulouse also in France, and integrated them at the existing facility in Rome.

Small satellites TAS is building for Italy’s IRIDE Earth constellation will be among the first to be developed in the new facility. TAS has an initial 142 million euro contract funded entirely through pandemic relief funds to provide six satellites for the constellation, and Comparini said all but the first two would likely be built at the Space Smart Factory.

Launches for IRIDE, or International Report for an Innovative Defence of Earth, are slated to begin in late 2025.

Another mission TAS hopes to get its hands on is the European Commission’s IRIS² broadband constellation. TAS has joined forces with Airbus and European satellite operators in a consortium jointly bidding for work on the project.

Airbus is currently the only European company to have mass-produced a large constellation, albeit at a factory based in Florida and in partnership with OneWeb, now part of Eutelsat of France. The Airbus OneWeb Satellites factory produced up to two satellites a day when it was in full swing for OneWeb’s first generation of more than 600 satellites. Airbus announced in January that it had bought OneWeb out of the Airbus OneWeb Satellites joint venture.

Eutelsat OneWeb is currently deciding on a manufacturer for a second-generation low Earth orbit network, and there’s a chance Airbus could be building at least part of it in Europe.

MDA also aims to produce two satellites a day at facilities in Montreal as the Canadian manufacturer repositions itself for the constellation market.

Still, these rates are easily overshadowed by what SpaceX’s in-house production is capable of for its fully-owned Starlink LEO broadband network. A SpaceX executive was quoted last year saying the company was manufacturing six satellites per day at its facility near Seattle.

This article first appeared in the December 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...