European Satellite Component Maker Says It is Dropping U.S. Components Because of ITAR

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A European manufacturer of satellite control and positioning systems is phasing out its U.S. supplier base because of U.S. government technology-export restrictions and changing to a new product designed to permit satellite star trackers to replace gyroscopes aboard telecommunications spacecraft.

EADS Sodern of Limeil-Brevannes, France, has placed its new-generation star tracker, the SED 16, aboard the AMC-12 commercial telecommunications satellite owned by SES Global’s SES Americom subsidiary of Princeton, N.J. AMC-12 was launched in February. The company says it is the first time a star tracker has been used as the primary source for satellite attitude control, or in-orbit stability. A nearly identical star tracker, the SED 26, performs the same function on the Apstar 6 satellite, owned by APT Satellite Holdings Ltd. of Hong Kong, which was launched in April .

Sodern Chief Executive Officer Franck Poirrier said the equipment, which provides greater autonomy and higher-precision positioning of satellites in orbit than previous-generation trackers, is working well on both satellites.

A star tracker model called Hydra will be introduced in 2006 and will offer lower-power operations, lower weight and a modular design.

It will take months of trouble-free operations in geostationary orbit before satellite insurance underwriters, satellite-fleet operators and prime contractors will view the star tracker as a viable replacement for gyroscopes in detecting when a satellite is slightly off its intended position. On board thrusters are then fired to return the spacecraft to the correct position or orientation.

But if the technology works as advertised, Sodern intends to attack the geostationary-satellite market with products that up until now have been used only for scientific and Earth-observation missions.

“It will take some time to show people that our hardware can resist the radiation environment in geostationary orbit,” Poirrier said in a press briefing here June 6. “But we believe these two satellites, AMC-12 and Apstar 6, will open the door to a new market for us.”

The SED 16 and SED 26 star trackers are of identical design but differ in one important respect. For the SED 16, Sodern relies on its standard U.S. subcontractors to supply the tracker’s processor and other gear.

The SED 26 was made without any U.S. components, a mandatory condition given that Apstar 6 satellite was built by Alcatel Space of Paris, it was orbited on a Chinese Long March rocket and still is owned by a Chinese company.

The U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which were made more strict in 1999, classify many satellite components as weapons and strictly regulate how and to whom they can be sold. The U.S. government has in recent years been especially strict on the export of satellites and satellite and launch technology to China. Sodern officials determined that it would have been impossible for the company to integrate U.S. hardware on its star tracker and then place it on a satellite bound for a Chinese launch base.

Sodern’s experience is similar to what many European and Asian companies are contemplating as they struggle to survive by seeking business far from their home bases. In Sodern’s case, business prospects in China, the Middle East, India and elsewhere will require that it be freed from the risks associated with relying on U.S. government approval through the ITAR process.

Didier Vilaire, director of space programs at Sodern, said prime contractors customarily wait until after they have won a contract before seeking bids from smaller subsystem builders like Sodern. That puts subsystem providers under intense pressure to deliver on schedule or face performance penalties and a loss of future work.

It is here that ITAR’s effects are most felt. “It takes a very long time to obtain a license” to permit the U.S. supplier to export its components, Poirrier said. “We need to be competitive not just on price, but also on performance and schedule. Even for low Earth orbit Earth-observation satellites, the deadlines are getting shorter.”

Without ITAR, Sodern could make bulk purchases of U.S. processors and other equipment to build up an inventory. With ITAR, orders cannot be made until the final customer and launch provider are known.

As is true throughout the space industry, most components are ordered in small quantities. Having a dual-supplier policy is not always feasible. The savings that follow larger orders often argue in favor of sticking with a single supplier. Poirrier said his company likely will phase out the SED 16 tracker in favor of the ITAR-free SED 26 product for this reason.

Sodern, which is a unit of EADS Space Transportation, but also completely separate and independent from satellite-builder EADS Astrium inside the EADS Space group, brings in revenue of about 50 million euros ($61 million) per year. In addition to star trackers, it also builds satellite Earth sensors that perform similar tasks.

AMC-12 and Apstar 6 were both built by prime contractor Alcatel Space of Paris, whose Spacebus 4000 satellite platform includes Sodern star trackers as standard equipment. But for now, this geostationary satellite design includes backup systems in response to today’s market concerns about any new satellite technology.

Sodern is also a supplier to Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., for scientific satellites, and to Russian satellite prime contractor NPO-PM of Krasnoyarsk for geostationary satellites.