European Rivals Test Cooperation

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PARIS — Europe’s two principal satellite and space-component test centers, Intespace of France and IABG of Germany, appear to be moving toward a more complementary relationship driven by their different ownership structures and geographic locations, the two companies’ chief executives said.

The two companies’ joint venture, European Test Services (ETS), tests European government orbital hardware that is too large for their existing facilities and too rare to justify the investment. These systems, such as Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle cargo carrier for the international space station, are tested by ETS at the European Space Agency’s Estec center in Noordwijk, Netherlands.

ETS is operated as an independent company and occasionally competes with its owners. The joint venture does about 7.5 million euros ($11 million) in business annually, Intespace and IABG officials said.

Intespace of Toulouse, France, which is 87 percent owned by Astrium and is located next door to an Astrium Satellites production facility, is riding high on Astrium’s recent commercial success and Astrium’s place as one of Europe’s principal satellite builders.

Intespace Chief Executive Frank Airoldi said Astrium’s satellite orders in the past couple of years is the main reason why Intespace is reporting a substantial revenue increase, hiring new personnel and investing in new facilities both in Toulouse and in a new plant outside Paris.

In a Sept. 28 briefing with reporters here, Airoldi said Intespace expects to report revenue of 23.4 million euros in 2009, up 23 percent from 2008. This does not include the ETS revenue. “We are clearly in a period of growth,” Airoldi said, adding that the company now counts 150 employees, up from 130 a year ago.

Intespace’s other shareholder, besides a symbolic so-called golden share held by the French government, is Thales Alenia Space, Astrium’s principal competitor in Europe. But Thales Alenia Space, frustrated by the logistical difficulties of transporting its satellites from the Cannes, France, manufacturing plant to Toulouse, invested in its own test facility for large satellites earlier this decade.

Airoldi said Intespace can work for any satellite builder. But Astrium’s proximity means most work is in fact performed on satellites built by Astrium or by the French space agency, CNES, whose biggest installation is also in Toulouse.

To relieve the congestion of the Toulouse facilities, Intespace is building a new facility in Elancourt, near Paris. Airoldi said it will be the first satellite-class clean room in the Paris region and should be operational late this year.

In Toulouse, Intespace has begun work on an expanded satellite-test chamber to be able to accommodate the large AlphaBus telecommunications satellite platform being designed with CNES and European Space Agency funds by Astrium and Thales Alenia Space.

To fully retrofit the Intespace facility for AlphaBus satellites would cost around 8 million euros, a large investment for Intespace that Airoldi said will not be committed until the commercial market has clearly signaled its support for this new satellite platform. But to test the first AlphaBus model, which has been purchased by mobile satellite services operator Inmarsat of London, Intespace already has invested 2 million euros.

Airoldi said Astrium is Intespace’s biggest customer by far but still accounts for only 50 percent of the company’s work. CNES, the European Space Agency, local space-component laboratories and, to a lesser degree, Thales Alenia Space account for the balance of the work, he said.

One of Intespace’s fastest-growing product lines is its DynaWorks software for processing test data, which recently was selected for use by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

Ottobrunn-based IABG is employee-owned and has a staff of 1,050. Revenue is about 140 million euros per year, most of it coming from automotive-test work. The satellite and space-system test, engineering and consulting division employs about 120 people and in 2008 reported revenue of 21 million euros, according to Stefan Kupczyk, IABG’s space division director.

Situated relatively far from the facilities where Europe’s telecommunications satellites are built, IABG has focused on smaller satellites and on satellite and launcher components, as well as work on German government space programs.

Kupczyk said that, in the near term, the biggest potential contract will be to test the 28 Galileo navigation and timing satellites to be contracted in the coming months by the European Space Agency and the European Commission.

Astrium’s German division is one of the two prime contractors bidding for the Galileo work, with the other being OHB Technology of Bremen, Germany. In either case, IABG appears well placed to win the satellite-test contract, even if Kupczyk said the company will bid on the assumption that a competitor is also looking for the work.