Eurostar Neo contract signing
Magali Vassiere (left), ESA’s director of telecommunications, and Eric Beranger, head of space systems at Airbus Defence and Space, sign a contract for the full development and qualification of the Eurostar Neo satellite platform. Behind them is ESA Director-General Johann-Dietrich Woerner. Credit: ESA/Stephane Corvaja

PARIS — The European Space Agency on Nov. 17 contracted with Airbus Defence and Space to complete the design and construction of its first new-generation Neo telecommunications satellite platform using technologies developed with ESA and French government funding.

Under the contract, valued at 109 million euros ($117 million), Airbus will complete work on its Eurostar Neo product, scheduled to be ready for flight in 2019 depending on when Airbus finds its first Neo customer.

The 22-nation ESA signed a similar contract, valued at 117.9 million euros, in September with Airbus competitor Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy for that company’s Spacebus Neo product line.

ESA and the French space agency, CNES, are aiding Europe’s two largest satellite prime contractors with the goal of reducing satellite production costs by 30 percent by 2020 and maintaining European industry’s commercial market share. The CNES funding is coming both as part of ESA’s telecommunications program and from France’s Investments for the Future (PIA) public bond.

All-electric propulsion, advanced thermal control and platform modularity and flexibility are intended to be the showcase virtues of the Neo satellites. The platforms are intended for satellites weighing between 3,000 and 6,000 kilograms at launch, depending in part on whether electric propulsion is used, and up to 25 kilowatts of power.

The two companies are being encouraged to use the same subcontractor industrial base to reduce costs and assure the continuity of subsystem providers.

Magali Vaissiere, director of telecommunications at ESA, said Airbus and Thales Alenia Space are free to use whatever component teams they want, but that both are likely to see the economic logic of working with the same supplier base.

Vaissiere said critical design reviews for both companies’ Neo platforms is expected in mid-2016.

Thales Alenia Space has already won its first Neo customer in Paris-based fleet operator Eutelsat, which has ordered a Ka-band high-throughput broadband satellite to cover Africa.

With ESA covering many of the nonrecurring engineering costs of the Neo-related research, both European contractors will have an advantage over the competition that they hope will compensate for satellite operators’ reluctance to order new technology.

The Neo program is one of several commercially oriented telecommunications satellite initiatives Europe.

The others include the Quantum reconfigurable satellite product, designed by Airbus with partner Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. of Britain, which features heavy British government backing; and the SmallGEO product line of OHB SE of Bremen, Germany, which is backed by the German government.

European manufacturers have long complained that unlike most of their U.S. or Chinese competitors they do not benefit from large government programs, such as those managed by the U.S. Air Force, that include new technology development useful for future commercial satellites.

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.