ESA To Develop Line of Small Telecom Satellites

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ESA governments agreed to pursue investment in the large AlphaSat telecommunications technology-demonstration satellite and also agreed to develop a line of small telecommunications satellites.

Europe’s AlphaSat satellite platform is already under development following a 200-million-euro ($236 million) contract from ESA and the French space agency, CNES, that was awarded in June to satellite manufacturers EADS Astrium and Alcatel Alenia Space.

The payload for the first AlphaSat has yet to be selected. ESA is preparing to sign competing study contracts, valued at several million euros, with Inmarsat of London, Eutelsat of Paris and Telespazio of Rome, ESA telecommunications director Giuseppe Viriglio said.

The companies will be co-financing the work and by late 2006 ESA is expected to name a winning bidder. The winner’s proposal will be selected for part of the AlphaSat payload, and the winning company will be responsible for operating the satellite.

A launch is scheduled in 2010.

ESA had asked for 300 million euros from its governments to work on the AlphaSat payload, which is expected to feature two-way Ka-band broadband communications, data-relay between satellites and mobile video transmissions. Governments that wish to participate in the program will have until 2006 to commit to their share of the financing.

At the other end of the commercial telecommunications satellite spectrum, ESA governments agreed to a German proposal to develop a platform to enter the lightweight, lower-power end of the market.

Germany had proposed the small-satellite mission with its domestic satellite builder, OHB System of Bremen, in mind. Of the 100 million euros requested, Germany made an initial commitment of 32 million euros, with Switzerland taking a stake of about 12 million euros. Here too, governments have until late 2006 to formalize their contributions.

ESA officials said Europe needs to protect its satellite sector against growing international competition. For large telecommunications satellites, the competition is principally American, with competition from Japan and China on the horizon.

For the smaller satellites, Orbital Sciences Corp. of the United States is the global market leader, but companies in India and Russia also are active in that market segment. Alcatel Alenia Space has an agreement with Russia’s NPO-PM to develop a line of small satellites, and EADS Astrium has a similar agreement with India’s Antrix Corp.