PARIS – Satellite fleet operator Eutelsat and the European Space Agency on July 9 signed a contract to build a new-generation satellite payload, called Eutelsat Quantum, that takes what they said is a further step toward a fully software-defined spacecraft, which has long been a Holy Grail for commercial fleet operators.

The contract, valued at 180 million euros ($198 million), will lead to a further contract with Airbus Defence and Space UK as prime contractor for the first satellite.

Small-satellite manufacturer Surrey Satellite Technologies Ltd. (SSTL), which has long sought an avenue to extend its product portfolio to geostationary orbit, will build the platform for the first Quantum and thereby qualify in orbit its Geostationary Minisatellite Platform.

The inaugural Quantum is scheduled to launch in 2018 aboard a yet-unselected rocket. Paris-based Eutelsat said it is not bound to choose Europe’s Ariane 5 vehicle for the launch of the 3,500-kilogram Quantum under the ESA contract.

The all-Ku-band satellite is expected to have a throughput of 6-7 gigabits per second and use a phased-array antenna provided by Airbus’s CASA subsidiary in Spain. Airbus said CASA’s phased-array antenna uses heritage from the transmit antenna on the Spanish Xtar X-band military telecommunications satellite, and on the receive side from Airbus’s work on the British Skynet 5 military telecommunications satellites.

The first Quantum will use chemical propulsion and have a 15-year orbital life and deliver 5 kilowatts of power to the payload.

Quantum was made possible by the British government, which is funding 90 percent of ESA’s commitment of 71 million euros in the Quantum program. ESA governments agreed to back Quantum in December 2014 in Luxembourg at a meeting of the agency’s member governments.

Eutelsat did not specify the size if its investment. The 180-million-euro figure includes the satellite’s development, manufacture and in-orbit validation, but does not include the launch. Eutelsat said it expects its total investment in Quantum will be between 150 million and 200 million euros, including the launch.

Eutelsat said it is still weighing several possible orbital slots for Quantum.

The ability to reshuffle a satelilte’s coverage and on-board power as a function of how the business develops over 15 years has long been an ambition of commercial fleet operators. They have often complained that terrestrial telecommunications technologies make generational leaps in a couple of years, while geostationary telecommunications satellites’ designs, frozen two or three years before launch, must remain relevant for 15 years in orbit.

Quantum is designed to change all that.

“When you think of a satellite, think of it as frozen in space,” Eutelsat Chief Executive Michel de Rosen said July 7 at a hearing in the French parliament.

“Thanks to Eutelsat Quantum and its intensive use of software, we can — without moving the satellite — point its capacity to, say, the Mediterranean in the summer, the Caribbean in winter, or follow a drone or a ship or a plane, or a fleet, offering our customers a flexibility that no other satellite offers today. It’s a major innovation in partnership between us, Airbus, ESA and the UK Space Agency.”

Eutelsat does not have exclusive access to Quantum technology.

How scalable the same flexible-payload approach is to larger communications satellites is unclear. Airbus said it could be adapted to larger satellites by adding modules and is modular enough to be applied to the Airbus line of Eurostar telecommunications satellites, which are much larger than the initial SSTL-built platform.

In an ESA document about Quantum, ESA said it was targeted at satellites generating up to 7 kilowatts of on-board power, with payloads weighing up to 450 kilograms.

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.