European Satellites Still Heavily Dependent on U.S. Parts

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TOULOUSE, France — More than one-third of the critical components embedded in European satellites, when measured by cost, are non-European, most of them provided by U.S. companies, according to the French space agency, CNES.

The situation has not materially changed in the past decade despite the technology-export red tape European and U.S. companies have faced in sending U.S. satellite parts overseas. It is one reason why CNES, the European Space Agency and the European Commission all include lines labeled “non-dependence” in their space research budgets.

For the European Commission, a program called Compet-T is part of the Horizon 2020 program, which has earmarked 200 million euros ($250 million) per year for space technology over seven years starting in 2014.

Horizon 2020 projects usually require co-funding by industry or national space agencies. The European Commission has budgeted 395 million euros over seven years for Compet-T, which in addition to reducing Europe’s satellite-component dependence also funds in-orbit demonstration of technologies.

The first two calls for proposals for the Compet-T program related to component independence and in-orbit technology validation were budgeted at 60 million euros — triple the level of its predecessor, which was part of the European Commission’s FP-7 Framework Program for Research.

CNES’s “strategic components” research line has remained at about 2 million euros per year in recent years, a figure that is multiplied by co-financing from industry and occasionally with the European Space Agency as part of the European Components Coordination/Component Technology Board.

These organizations have all said their goal is to harmonize their programs to avoid duplication and achieve maximum effect.

“It goes without saying that if 30-40 percent of critical components of European satellites are made in Europe, that means at least 60 percent that we are importing from outside Europe,” said Gilles Bellaiche of the CNES technology directorate during a Jan. 29 presentation of CNES’s research priorities.

European companies and government agencies continue to have issues with U.S. technology-export restrictions despite the overall relaxing of many of the rules in the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR. Since last November, many of the permissions for export of satellite components are now granted by the U.S. Commerce Department, and not the State Department.

The U.A.E. Falcon Eye. Credit: Airbus Defence and Space
The U.A.E. Falcon Eye. Credit: Airbus Defence and Space

But incidents like the 2013-2014 difficulty that European contractors faced in receiving timely U.S. export approval for parts to be used in the United Arab Emirates’ Falcon Eye optical reconnaissance satellite system are still fresh in the minds of European governments and industry.

Despite its being softened, ITAR is still evoked any time European companies review their technology landscape. For example, one of the Horizon 2020 program’s two space-related Strategic Research Clusters deals with electric satellite propulsion to replace conventional propellant.

For this program, the European Commission has about half a dozen companies working on different technologies of ion and plasma propulsion. One of them, Ireland-based European Space Propulsion Ltd., is a unit of a Aerojet Rocketdyne of Sacramento, California.

That fact has been used by a competing plasma propulsion manufacturer to question whether the European Commission should be funding a company whose technology is from the United States and thus ultimately subjected to ITAR export rules.

During much of the past decade, the U.S. dollar’s weakness relative to the euro made it difficult for European satellite builders to justify swapping out U.S. for European components even in those cases where a European alternative was available, which often was not the case.

U.S. builders had the advantage of a large domestic government market that enabled builders to maintain production lines that Europe’s small government space market could not have sustained.

But with the spectacular fall of the euro in recent months, and the European Commission’s new budget now joining the European Space Agency, CNES and other national agencies in Europe in pushing for autonomy in critical space components, that may no longer be true.