Italian Commitment to Next-gen Radar Satellites in Time to Avert Gap

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PARIS — The last-minute Italian government allocation of funding for a second-generation Cosmo-SkyMed dual-use radar Earth observation program came in time to permit prime contractor Thales Alenia Space Italy to assure the satellites’ launches in 2017 and 2018, Thales Alenia Space officials said.

Ending a months-long drama that included pro-space-investment demonstrations outside Italian government offices in December, the government approved in late-December an amendment to its spending package that will cover the completion of two Cosmo-SkyMed satellites, a ground-segment upgrade and the satellites’ launch, company officials said.

Elisio Prette. Credit: Telespazio
Elisio Prette. Credit: Telespazio

“We owe a debt of thanks to the Italian government, and especially to ASI [the Italian Space Agency], which applied the necessary pressure,” Thales Alenia Space Italy Chief Executive Elisio Prette said in a Jan. 16 interview. “We understand this required an effort given the government’s recent support for the ExoMars mission.”

ASI and the Italian Defense Ministry are joint owners of the new-generation Cosmo-SkyMed system, which for now comprises just two satellites. Planning for the first-generation system, whose four satellites were launched between June 2007 and November 2010, assumed that each satellite would operate for at least five years. The satellites include a submetric-ground-resolution mode for military use only, and several observing modes for civil and commercial use, with the sharpest at 1-meter resolution.

All four satellites, in near-polar orbit at 619 kilometers in altitude, are reported in good health. But the two that entered service in 2007 and 2008 are expected to need replacement in 2017 and 2018 to assure data continuity, which is why ASI and Thales Alenia Space had been pressing the government for a financial commitment in 2014.

An August tranche of 66.6 million euros ($87 million) assured continued work through the spring, and no longer. More than 150 million euros has already been committed to Cosmo-SkyMed, which the government estimated will cost 500 million euros to complete, including launch.

In a statement, ASI said the new government commitment will allow ASI to pay 30 million euros per year between 2015 and 2018, with additional funds set aside to provide for the launch. Each satellite is expected to weigh 2,200 kilograms at launch and to operate for seven years.

Sandro Fagioli, Thales Alenia Space’s Cosmo-SkyMed program manager, said the two second-generation satellites will feature control momentum gyros to give the satellites greater in-orbit maneuverability without sacrificing onboard fuel. The gyros, he said, are a new development at the company and will fly for the first time on Cosmo-SkyMed. Fagioli said that, as a backup, the satellites will also carry momentum wheels.

Fagioli said the current satellites’ onboard electronics and fuel supply have permitted them to operate longer than expected, giving the government room to delay the launch of the second-generation system — which was always in the government’s strategic plan — until 2017, or 10 years after the launch of the first model.

Thales Alenia Space is also a major supplier for Argentina’s two Saocom radar observation satellites. Saocom satellites’ radars operate in L-band, while Cosmo-SkyMed is in X-band.

The Italian government had its hands full of planned space commitments in December. At a meeting of European Space Agency governments in Luxembourg, Italy committed to raising its annual contributions to the international space station, to funding a 50 percent-plus stake in upgrades of Europe’s Italian-led Vega rocket, and to assuring Italian leadership of Europe’s ExoMars mission to Mars.

ASI said the Cosmo-SkyMed work will provide employment for nearly 400 engineers and technicians at Thales Alenia Space’s facilities in Rome, L’Aquila and Turin.

For the Italian Defense Ministry, Cosmo-SkyMed is part of a bilateral agreement with the French Defense Ministry in which Italy gives France radar data and France gives Italy products from France’s optical reconnaissance satellites.

ASI President Roberto Battiston, in a statement, said Cosmo-SkyMed is “a key national strategic asset” for territorial monitoring, civil protection and national security.