European Small Satellite Program Gains Momentum

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A German-led European program to design a small satellite platform for future commercial telecommunications missions appears to be winning new support after initial hesitation by Germany’s partners in the European Space Agency (ESA).

The latest convert to what is known as the Small Geo Satellite is the Spanish government, which has decided to invest in the program. Seven other nations also have agreed to take part.

ESA governments in December agreed to spend 100 million euros ($125 million) developing the Small Geo platform under the industrial leadership of OHB-System of Bremen, Germany. That sum will be matched by nearly 100 million euros in industrial contributions to the development of the platform and production of a first flight model for launch in 2010.

Like ESA’s Alphabus program, which is designing a satellite bus, or platform, for top-of-the-line telecommunications satellites, the Small Geo initiative will partner with a satellite operator for the first launch. Precise payload and mission characteristics will await negotiations with prospective operators to occur late this year, according to Xavier Lobao, future programs manager in ESA’s telecommunications department.

“Several of our member states see this as a real commercial opportunity, with competition among component suppliers and a concern for value for money,” Lobao said July 6. “The program is being run with benchmarking done so that we do not end up with a product that is too expensive for the market.”

Germany wanted to stimulate development of a German satellite prime contractor, and other ESA governments have been persuaded that there is a future market to be captured for satellites weighing 2,000-2,500 kilograms at launch and including 300 kilograms of payload electronics with up to three kilowatts of on board power and a 15-year service life.

Part of the appeal of a satellite this size is that it can be launched solo aboard vehicles costing around $45 million. One future application of the Small Geo platform is for satellites that are launched directly into geostationary orbit rather than into the transfer orbit commonly used now. Going directly to final geostationary position means dispensing with the need for a large apogee motor on the satellite.

Another future application, program managers say, is for satellites that use electric propulsion to make their way to a geostationary orbital position. This maneuver takes several months to complete after the satellite reaches its initial orbit, but it widens the number of potential low-cost launch vehicles that can be used.

The timing of the Small Geo decision at ESA in December was ironic. At about the same time, satellite manufacturer Astrium announced a strategic partnership with Antrix of India, a government entity that commercializes space technology.

Under the EADS-Antrix partnership, Antrix is providing a small satellite platform for commercial telecommunications customers, with Astrium responsible for the payload electronics. Eutelsat of Paris and start-up operator Avanti Screenmedia Group of Britain have both ordered satellites from the Astrium-Antrix team.

Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., continues to dominate the global market for commercial telecommunications satellites weighing less than 3,000 kilograms. It has been Orbital’s success in the past five years that helped persuade Astrium to enter the Antrix partnership, and that same success has caused several ESA governments to sign on to the Small Geo program.

“We have to be able to build a product to compete with the Americans on this,” said Walter Dollinger, head of space programs at the German Aerospace Center, DLR. “In Germany, after 20 years of getting out of the business of satellite prime contracting, we are now re-entering the business with Small Geo.”

Gerd Kraft, telecommunications satellite manager at DLR, said the Small Geo program has attracted the interest of several European satellite-fleet operators who have purchased small satellites in the past or are considering that option.

Lobao said that while the Small Geo satellite may not be able to match Antrix’s price, it can offer performance enhancements that, combined with a relatively low retail price, will make it attractive to commercial fleet operators.

The in-service date of 2010 is also a plus for Small Geo, Lobao said, because it is around then that satellite operators will be selecting satellites to renew their fleets.

A workshop on the Small Geo system and its goals, held June 29-30 in Rottach-Egern, Germany, featured presentations by Eutelsat, Avanti, Hispasat of Spain, SES Global of Luxembourg and Telenor Satellite Services of Norway.

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