PARIS — Two industrial teams are bidding to join the European and French space agencies in building and launching the first AlphaSat satellite, which is intended to test a new-generation telecommunications satellite platform for the European Space Agency (ESA) and provide the winning bidder with a commercial spacecraft.
Meeting ESA’s March 26 deadline were bids by satellite-fleet operator Eutelsat Communications of Paris, which is teamed with Telespazio of Italy; and Inmarsat of London. Eutelsat proposes to use AlphaSat to provide Ka-band broadband fixed data transmissions in Europe. Inmarsat is bidding to place an extended L-band payload on AlphaSat to broaden Inmarsat’s existing mobile satellite services portfolio.
Each of the bidders has rounded up internal and external funding in excess of 200 million euros ($267 million) to pay for the development of their respective payloads, integration of the gear onto the AlphaSat platform, called the AlphaBus, and to pay most of the costs of launching the satellite in 2010 or 2011, according to government and industry officials.
Carlo Elia, head of ESA’s telecommunications department, which is overseeing AlphaBus and AlphaSat, said the agency’s Joint Communications Board will review the two bids over the next six weeks. A winner will be selected May 14, with a final contract to be signed by mid June, Elia said in a March 28 interview.
ESA and the French space agency, CNES, have pooled their resources and agreed to spend a combined 220 million euros to develop AlphaBus, which is designed to support payloads with 18 kilowatts of on board power at the end of the satellite’s in-orbit life.
The first AlphaBus/AlphaSat is expected to weigh up to 7,000 kilograms at launch and will feature a host of innovative technologies that are intended to sharpen European satellite builders’ competitiveness in the world market.
Europe’s two biggest satellite prime contractors, Alcatel Alenia Space and Astrium Satellites, are co-developing AlphaBus as part of an agreement signed in 2003. They also are financing part of the platform’s development.
In addition to its principal commercial payload, which is to be financed by the winning bidder, AlphaSat will carry three payloads developed under ESA’s Artes telecommunications development program.
Tesat Spacecom GmbH of Germany will be building a laser terminal for optical communications between AlphaSat and another satellite, or with ground stations. Jena Optronic GmbH of Germany will be providing a new-generation star tracker. Alcatel Alenia Space will lead development — along with Space Engineering SpA of Italy — of a Q/V Band payload in the 40-gigahertz portion of the radio spectrum .
Elia said ESA has agreed to pay its pro rata share of payload integration costs for these three experiments, which will weigh a combined 150 kilograms, and also pay a pro rata share of the Alphasat launch costs.
In addition to providing funding for the program from the winning company, each bid also is being backed with smaller investments by local or national governments whose industry is viewed as benefiting from the payload development.
Inmarsat recently secured support totaling some 46 million euros from three regional and national British government agencies, which when coupled with a previously agreed to 5.7 million euro contribution from the British National Space Centre, will bring government support of Inmarsat’s bid to more than 50 million euros, according to government and industry officials.
Canada, Spain and Germany have agreed to invest different amounts depending on which bid wins. Eutelsat has rounded up some 15 million euros in support from the French government and 15 million more from Germany and Spain.
Eutelsat spokesman Vanessa O’Connor said Eutelsat’s bid includes national government support, but she declined to specify sources and amounts. Inmarsat spokesman Christopher McLaughlin confirmed that Inmarsat had received 46 million euros in backing from three British government agencies.
When the Alcatel Alenia Space-Astrium cooperation agreement on AlphaBus was struck in 2003, the first AlphaSat was scheduled for a 2007 launch. Since then, funding difficulties at ESA and CNES have slowed development of a platform whose commercial appeal remains unproven.
The original concept for AlphaBus was to use it as a project that would permit European satellite manufacturers to remain in the race with their U.S. competitors to build ever-bigger, more-powerful satellite platforms since U.S. companies can rely on the U.S. Defense Department to prove some technologies in orbit.
But in the past four years, the global commercial satellite telecommunications market has split into several niches including small satellites weighing 3,000 kilograms or less, midsize spacecraft weighing up to 5,000 kilograms and larger spacecraft weighing up to 6,700 kilograms at launch.
None of the companies currently active in the commercial market have product portfolios covering all three market segments. Whether Astrium or Alcatel Alenia Space intends to develop an active AlphaBus line — together or separately — is unclear.