Emmanuel Macron
French Economics and Industry Minister Emmanuel Macron. Credit: OECD/ Julien Daniel

PARIS — The French government on Sept. 11 said it is investing in technologies to position French industry to win contracts building low-orbiting satellite Internet-delivery constellations, a new generation of high-resolution optical Earth observation satellites and proposed high-throughput broadband satellites in geostationary orbit.

The investments make good on a promise by government officials that after three years of near-obsessive focus on launch vehicles leading to the next-generation Ariane 6 rocket, French attention would turn to satellites.

French Economics and Industry Minister Emmanuel Macron said the proposed spending — in high-end Earth observation and in both high- and low-orbiting telecommunications satellites — is designed to enhance French industry’s “acceleration and competitiveness” on world markets. Reaction time is as important as technical prowess, he said.

Macron made his remarks at a briefing here following a meeting of the CoSpace government-industry grouping, which attempts to coordinate government and industry strategy.

CoSpace is presided over by the French economics, defense and research ministers. The French space agency, CNES, which has a civil and military role, and the French aerospace industries association, GIFAS, set the investment agenda.

The focus on Ariane 6 was driven by a fear that SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, would threaten the commercial launch dominance of the French-led Arianespace consortium.

In satellites, France wants to counter the strength of DigitalGlobe of Westminster, Colorado, whose multibillion-dollar, 10-year contract with the U.S. government allows the company to invest in high-cost, very-high-resolution Earth imaging satellites that have taken a large share of the global commercial market.

The focus on satellite-delivered Internet is designed to prevent Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, California, now allied with ViaSat Inc. of Carlsbad, California, and Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, California, from using their U.S. base to sell high-throughput broadband satellite systems worldwide, to the detriment of Europe’s Airbus Defence and Space and Thales Alenia Space.

Three distinct initiatives were announced after the CoSpace meeting:

• CNES has contracted with Airbus Defence and Space and Thales Alenia Space to conduct 18 months of design work on a next-generation high-resolution optical imaging system that, like France’s current two-satellite Pleiades system, would serve commercial and military customers.

The contract, valued at around 15 million euros ($16.5 million), allows a joint Airbus-Thales team to refine work already done in CNES’s OTOS — Super-Resolution Optical Earth Observation — program.

Airbus will lead work on the satellite platform, with Thales Alenia Space managing work on the payload. Both companies are also building the French Defense Ministry’s two-satellite CSO system, to succeed today’s Helios imaging satellites in the coming years.

Airbus and Thales Alenia Space are increasingly competing to win Earth observation satellite orders on export markets despite having worked jointly on France’s Spot civil and Helios military spacecraft since the mid-1980s, and more recently on Pleiades.

Airbus has a division that competes directly with DigitalGlobe and has watched as the U.S. company, most recently with 30-centimeter-resolution imagery, has walked away with much of the very-high-resolution end of the market.

A DigitalGlobe 30-centimeter natural color image of San Diego. Credit: DigitalGlobe
A DigitalGlobe 30-centimeter natural color image of San Diego. Credit: DigitalGlobe

• The French government has agreed to use 30 million euros from its PIA, or Investing in the Future, public bond fund to promote technologies needed for low-orbiting constellations of Internet-delivery satellites. Another 5 million euros has been added from the European Space Agency’s Artes technology program.

Much of this investment would appear directed at work to be done as part of OneWeb Ltd.’s announced 900-satellite constellation, for which Airbus has been selected as prime contractor.

OneWeb, based in Britain’s Channel Islands, and Airbus are expected to decide in the coming weeks on a U.S. location to build their jointly owned satellite manufacturing plant.

Thales Alenia Space has been working closely with another proposed constellation, called LeoSat, whose current status is less clear.

• CoSpace has agreed to propose, along with satellite fleet operator Eutelsat of Paris, that the European Union’s Juncker development fund be used to build three or four large geostationary-orbit high-throughput satellites to be launched around 2020.

The satellites, each with 250 gigabits per second of throughput, would provide 30-50 megabits per second of bandwidth to individual European homes and small businesses that are not connected to the terrestrial broadband grid.

The CoSpace proposal will be presented to the European Commission in November, with a decision expected in mid-2016. If approved, financing would be provided through loans from the European Investment Bank.

Jean-Francois Bureau, director of international and institutional affairs at satellite operator Eutelsat, said the project’s goal is to place into operation a satellite system whose cost — construction, launch, insurance and gateway Earth stations — would not exceed 1million euros per gigabit of throughput capacity.

Bureau said many details of the system’s business model have yet to be settled and would be the focus of discussion between Paris-based Eutelsat, the French government and French satellite manufacturers.

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