Italian Space Agency Expects Budget To Remain Flat for 2010

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PARIS — The president of the Italian Space Agency (ASI) expects his agency’s budget to withstand the pressures of the economic downturn and to remain at about 700 million euros ($1 billion) a year in 2010 and 2011, with ASI joining several Italian government ministries in a request for additional funds to prepare Italy’s satellite navigation services.

Enrico Saggese also said contracts for a government-only Ka-band broadband satellite called Athena-Fidus and a military telecommunications satellite called Sicral 2 — both being built in cooperation with France — will be signed within weeks.

Saggese and the president of the French space agency, CNES, in December signed agreements relating to Athena-Fidus’ development. The entire system is expected to cost around 250 million euros, to be divided about equally between the two nations.

Saggese said Italian and French authorities have agreed that Athena-Fidus and Sicral 2, to be built by Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy, should be given the final go-ahead at the same time, and that final negotiations on launcher selection have held up the contract signatures.

“The agreements with France for these two programs have been confirmed, and I don’t see any difficulties in signing the contracts soon,” Saggese said in a Jan. 11 interview.

Athena-Fidus will be using that part of the Ka-band radio spectrum reserved for governments. Its goal is to provide military and civil government authorities with broadband connectivity both in Europe and between Europe and the Middle East and parts of Africa.

Sicral 2 is part of Italy’s long-standing Sicral military telecommunications program. But this satellite will carry separate Italian and French payloads, providing economies for both nations. In France, Sicral 2 will replace what might have been a third Syracuse 3 spacecraft. Two dedicated Syracuse 3 satellites are already in orbit.

Sicral 2 will also bolster Italy’s contribution to a multiyear contract to provide the NATO alliance with satellite communications links. The Italian Sicral system is sharing responsibility for the NATO contract with France’s Syracuse 3 and Britain’s Skynet 5 satellites.

Italy is one of the few European governments that viewed Europe’s Galileo satellite navigation project as one that should be financed by multiple government departments. In 2001 a special government committee was created for Galileo, an arrangement that permitted Italy to contribute 308 million euros to Galileo, now being managed by the European Commission.

Saggese said Italian Galileo managers are asking for an additional funding tranche of between 100 million euros and 150 million euros to prepare Italian industry to introduce services related to Galileo and its precursor in Europe, called Egnos, and to begin to develop a network to use Galileo’s government-only Public Regulated Service.

Thales Alenia Space is part of a consortium led by Astrium Satellites that was passed over for the first round of Galileo satellite manufacturing contracts. The winner was a team led by two much smaller companies, OHB Technology of Germany and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. of Britain.

Saggese said the contractor selection is an example of the evolution of the space industry, which now features numerous companies capable of making uncomplicated satellites.

“We had perhaps more work in Italy with the Astrium-led offer but I can’t say we are completely unhappy with the selection of the Galileo contractor for this first round of satellites,” Saggese said. “OHB was quite clever in the way it approached its bid, and in any event I am sure Astrium will use this event as a stimulant when it bids for future Galileo satellites.”

For Saggese, space technology is no longer the exclusive preserve of large, integrated aerospace companies except for single-copy science satellites that require resources only large companies can bring to the task.

Italy is paying for around 60 percent of the development of the Vega small-satellite launcher, whose first launch has been delayed to late this year or early 2011.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is overseeing Vega development, but its prime contractor is ELV SpA of Italy, which is 70 percent owned by Avio of Colleferro, Italy, and 30 percent by ASI.

Saggese said Vega has sufficient funding to carry it through to its first launch. ESA governments also have committed to purchasing the initial Vega launches for ESA science and Earth observation payloads.

Saggese said that if Vega succeeds in its first flight late this year or early in 2011, it will help free up resources at ESA to prepare for the next-generation Ariane rocket, the Ariane 6.