First Pleiades To Launch No Earlier than Late 2009

The first of the French government’s two Pleiades high-resolution optical Earth observation satellites will be not be launched before late 2009, and the second a year later, according to officials from the French space agency, CNES. The new dates put the program a year behind its initial schedule.

The satellites are being built by Astrium Satellites, which is responsible for the platform; and Alcatel Alenia Space, which is providing the payload instruments. It is the payload that has proved more difficult to realize than expected. Delays related to the production of imaging detectors and, more recently, focal-plane filters have forced the program to delay its in-service date.

CNES contracted with Astrium and Alcatel Alenia in October 2003 to build the two satellites, with the contract valued at 315 million euros ($399 million). The Pleiades spacecraft will be able to detect objects of 70 meters in diameter, with an image swath width of 20 kilometers.

Pleiades is a dual-use system and is part of a bilateral agreement with Italian civil and defense authorities on a space-based observation system. Italy is providing four Cosmo-Skymed radar satellites for that system.

Sweden, Belgium, Spain and Austria subsequently have purchased stakes totaling about 10 percent in the program and, alongside Italy, will have rights to Pleiades data.

Michel Arnaud, CNES deputy director for orbital systems, said the two Pleiades satellites will produce a combined total of about 900 images per day. Defense forces in France, Italy and the four other participating nations will have priority rights to around 50 images per day.

Forty percent of Pleiades’ images will be reserved for civil government agencies, which will be able to purchase Pleiades data at favorable rates. The remaining capacity, equivalent to more than 50 percent of Pleiades’ total output, will be available for commercial sale.

CNES is negotiating an agreement with Spot Image of Toulouse, France, which likely will be the commercial operator for Pleiades, Arnaud said.


Study Concludes Delta 4 Capable of Servicing ISS

Boeing’s Delta 4 rocket would be able to launch the large international space station (ISS) cargo carriers being built in Europe and Japan if the European Ariane 5 and the Japanese H-2A vehicles are unavailable, a study funded by the prime contractors of all three rockets has concluded.

The work also has found that launching the European or Japanese hardware on Delta 4 would not be much more costly than the launches planned on the Ariane 5 or the H-2A.

Boeing Launch Services, Europe’s Arianespace launch consortium and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries of Japan have spent nearly two years studying whether technical-compatibility issues would prevent the Delta 4 Heavy vehicle from replacing the Ariane 5 or the H-2A in launching Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle and Japan’s H-2 Transfer Vehicle. Both are being designed to deliver supplies to the space station.

The conclusion: “There are no show-stoppers,” said L. Kevin Reyes, Boeing Launch Services manager, who presented the study’s findings. “There is also no big cost penalty” in preparing and conducting the launch from the Delta 4’s Cape Canaveral launch base as compared to performing the same work at the European or Japanese spaceports, he said. Reyes said European and Japanese engineers would be stationed at the Delta 4 launch site to perform payload integration.

To perform the analysis, Boeing required U.S. State Department approval, in the form of Technical Assistance Agreements, to share Delta 4 technology with Arianespace and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries personnel. It took eight months to secure such approval, including Boeing internal reviews and the State Department evaluation.

Disaster Warning Demo Set To Begin with ALOS

The Sentinel-Asia regional disaster-management project is expected to begin a series of demonstrations in the coming weeks once regular operations of Japan’s ALOS Earth observation satellite begin, according to the Japanese space agency, Jaxa.

Jaxa is one of the principal coordinators of Sentinel-Asia, which currently includes 14 member nations. Sentinel-Asia is designed to bring disaster warning and management information directly to individual consumers’ hand-held digital devices through the use of the WebGIS system developed by Lakes Environmental Software.

Yasushi Horikawa, executive director of Jaxa’s office of space applications, said Sentinel-Asia should develop into a system that collates telecommunications, navigation, positioning and Earth observation data from satellite and terrestrial sources and speeds it to consumers in an easy-to-read format on their hand-held screens.

Sentinel-Asia is Japan’s core contribution to the international project to develop a coordinated system for environmental monitoring. About 60 nations have agreed to engage in a 10-year project to heighten coordination of their satellite and terrestrial assets. Reducing the number of casualties from natural disasters by delivering clear information to affected populations is one of the project’s principal goals.

Improved Debris Catalogue Cuts Avoidance Maneuvers

The International Space Station has been maneuvered to avoid space garbage on seven occasions since its first element was launched in 1998, but no such maneuvers have been conducted in the past three years despite the worsening space-debris environment.

Nicholas L. Johnson of NASA’s orbital debris program office said one reason is that the U.S. catalogue of orbital debris is now more accurate, reducing the number of false alarms that in the past led to precautionary maneuvers of the station.

The U.S. Space Surveillance Network of ground-based sensors used to track debris gives space station mission managers 72 hours advance notice of a potential collision. If there is a one-in-10,000 chance of contact, the station conducts an avoidance maneuver.

Owners of satellites in low Earth orbit increasingly de-orbit their spacecraft so that they burn up on atmospheric reentry within 25 years of their retirement.

Most of these satellites operate at 700 kilometers in altitude or higher, far above the station’s 350-400-kilometer orbit. But on their way out of orbit they will travel through the altitude at which astronauts fly and work. Johnson said this is not a cause for special concern, in part because these satellites tend to enter the atmosphere quickly once they leave their working orbits, spending little time at the station’s altitude. “These are also tracked objects. We know where they are,” Johnson said. “It will not increase the risk to the station.”

Similarly, the pieces of the shuttle or the space station that regularly fall off in orbit in the vicinity of astronauts are not a cause for concern.

Some three dozen objects have come off the station or the shuttle since station assembly began. Johnson said they reenter the atmosphere within days, for the most part, and thus do not add to the debris population in a significant way.

Even the SuitSat experiment — a Russian space suit equipped with batteries and a transmitter that was thrown off the station in February to act as a homemade satellite — did not last long. It survived about six months before reentering the atmosphere, Johnson said.

ESA To Oversee Development
Of Spanish Observation Sat

The European Space Agency (ESA) has signed initial commitments with the Spanish government to oversee development of an optical Earth observation satellite using Spanish money and a Spanish industrial team.

The Seosat project will feature an optical imager with a 2.5-meter ground resolution in black-and-white mode and 10 meters in color, similar to the French-led Spot 5 satellite operating today.

But there is currently no Spot 5 successor being developed in France, and the Spanish government has seized what it views as a capacity gap to hone Spain’s industrial base. Seosat is tentatively budgeted at around 150 million euros ($190 million), not including the launch and ground infrastructure. Its launch is expected to be in 2010.

Spain’s Center for Development of Industrial Technology, CDTI, is financing the project, with the defense-affiliated aerospace-technology institute INTA taking a role in the project’s technical specifications and ground segment.

“The objective is to demonstrate that Spanish industry is mature enough to undertake this kind of project,” said Pilar Roman, a CDTI delegate to ESA. “We expect a final contract for satellite development to be awarded to EADS CASA in 2007.”

For the moment, ESA and CDTI have agreed to a contract valued at less than 4 million euros that will permit ESA to begin preliminary project design through a series of contracts with Spanish companies, including EADS CASA.

Roman said Spain’s environmental agency will be a major customer, but that a commercial operating company is also being discussed to handle Seosat sales. She said Seosat will be integrated into Europe’s Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program and will be Spain’s key contribution to it.

Reinhold Zobl, head of ESA’s Earth observation projects department, said the project is being handled as a third-party agreement under ESA’s bylaws. When the time comes for signing the full construction contract, ESA will need approval from its ruling council. Zobl said the council ratification is not in doubt, and that it is likely to occur in June.

CDTI officials say they have sufficient government support to finance Seosat on their own, but that junior partners may be added through ESA for certain hardware items. ESA will be paid a management fee for its project management.

U.K., German, Russian Firms Vie for Kazakh Satellite Deal

OHB Technology of Germany and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. of Britain are trying to win a piece of an expected Kazakh optical Earth observation satellite contract alongside the favored Russian competitors, RSC Energia and Khrunichev Space Center, according to Russian and European industry officials.

Kazakhstan, which recently launched its first telecommunications satellite and is deciding whether to contract for a second one, has recently created a national space agency and made a clear decision to become an active player in the global space sector, industry officials said. Kazakhstan is home to the Russian-run Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Vladimir I. Verkhoturov of Moscow-based Energia said his company is proposing that Kazakhstan’s Earth observation satellite be part of the Smotr program under development in Russia that ultimately could feature four satellites. Russia’s Gazprom natural-gas supplier is a prime customer for the Smotr system, which will monitor thousands of gas-transmission and storage facilities throughout Russia.

Verkhoturov said the Kazakh satellite likely will have a Russian-built platform and at least some payload contributions by non-Russian companies.

Marco Fuchs, chief executive officer of OHB Technology of Bremen, Germany, said OHB decided to enter the competition after being assured by Kazakh authorities that they were willing to consider non-Russian contractors. Sir Martin Sweeting, chief executive of Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) of Guildford, England, agreed that the Kazakh government appears in favor of a mixed solution including non-Russian components.

Sweeting said SSTL’s recent purchase of the space imager division of Sira Group of Britain gives the small-satellite specialist an ability to bid for payload-component contracts without providing the full satellite.

Verkhoturov said Energia is developing an Earth observation system for JSC Gascom, the telecommunications satellite arm of Russia’s Gazprom natural-gas company. Ultimately, he said, the Smotr system would consist of two optical and two radar satellites. Up to now, he said, Energia has received a design contract for the work. A development contract is expected for at least part of the system in 2007, he said.

German Firms Capitalizing as Primes, Governments Increase Outsourcing

The decision by European government space agencies and large prime contractors to outsource increasing amounts of their work is playing to the advantage of a small German engineering services company.

HE Space Operations of Bremen, Germany, and Katwijk, Netherlands, has more than tripled in size in the last five years. Now with 80 full-time employees, company officials say they are adding two to three engineers per month.

“We think this rate is sustainable for us for at least awhile,” said Claudia Kessler, HE Space managing director. “Absorbing this many people for us is a challenge, but we have a mentoring program and so far it is working out well.”

HE Space’s principal customers include the European and German space agencies and space-hardware prime contractor Astrium. The company is broadening its market beyond its base of manned-space-related projects, and now includes German Earth observation startup RapidEye AG and the Galileo Industries consortium, which is building Europe’s satellite navigation system.

Kessler said the company reported about 5 million euros ($6.3 million) in revenue in 2005. Forty percent of its business comes from contracts related to the space-agency work, international space station or other astronaut-related programs, with another 10 percent devoted to space-agency contracts in other fields. The remaining 50 percent is private-sector contracts, with HE Space personnel generally posted to the project site.

HE Space’s offices in the Netherlands are located next to the European Space Agency’s Estec technology center in Noordwijk.

HE Space Business Manager Leslie Gale said the company’s Web-based hiring system attracts aerospace engineers whose careers are just beginning and who are attracted to the space sector.

“We are finding that the attractiveness of the industry remains high among recent engineering graduates,” Gale said. “We are well aware that they have options in other sectors, but the appeal of space is strong.”

Russia To Build Nuclear Power Source For Europe’s ExoMars Rover Mission

A Russian participation in Europe’s ExoMars Mars rover mission likely will include nuclear-powered heaters for the rover’s instruments, according to officials from Russia’s space agency, Roskosmos, and the European Space Agency (ESA).

ExoMars had a targeted launch date of 2011 but likely will not be ready before 2013, ESA Exploration Director Daniel Sacotte said. ESA has been discussing procurement of Russian-built nuclear heaters for several months and has initiated a safety assessment of the technology that is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year.

Russia and the United States have used radioisotope energy power sources for interplanetary and Mars lander missions. But nuclear power remains a sensitive issue in Europe and, to date, there is no European development program under way to produce nuclear heaters despite ESA’s ambitions to launch satellites to the far reaches of the solar system, where conventional satellite solar arrays cannot provide sufficient power.

European officials say purchasing the technology from the United States would be prohibited, or made overly complicated, by U.S. technology-transfer regulations. That leaves Russia as the only option.

Alexey M. Korostelev, Roskosmos deputy division manager, said his agency is evaluating a role in ExoMars that would include the rover power heaters.

Piero Messina, coordination manager for ESA’s Aurora space exploration program, which includes ExoMars, said ESA had been working on the assumption that it would purchase the Russian nuclear heaters commercially. But more recently, Messina said, Russian authorities have suggested a government-to-government agreement on ExoMars that presumably would be pursued on a no-exchange-of-funds basis. Messina said that in addition to nuclear heaters, Russian participation in ExoMars could include a rover chassis, or airbags used during the rover’s landing on Mars’ surface.