TAMPA, Fla. — An Italian Earth observation project funded by pandemic relief euros has ordered at least 34 satellites and a pair of Vega launches in recent months.

More than 47 Italian companies have secured contracts for the 1.1 billion euro ($1.2 billion) IRIDE constellation, or International Report for Innovative Defense of Earth, as part of the Italian government’s National Plan for Recovery and Resilience.

The low Earth orbit network would use optical, radar, and other imaging payloads to monitor Italy’s critical infrastructure, air quality, and meteorological conditions.

Arianespace has a contract from the European Space Agency, acting on behalf of the Italian government, for two Vega C rockets to start launching IRIDE satellites in late 2025, with an option for a third to complete the constellation in 2026.

Italy-based Avio is the prime contractor for Vega launch vehicles. 

The satellite makers

ESA has awarded IRIDE satellite manufacturing contracts to Italy-based teams led by Thales Alena Space, Argotec, Sitael, OHB, and space logistics company D-Orbit perhaps best known for its last-mile space tug services.

Thales Alena Space said March 27 it won IRIDE contracts from ESA for six small satellites with synthetic aperture radars (SAR) and one based on optical technology. 

The contracts are worth 141 million euros for all seven satellites. They also include options for another four SAR satellites and an extra optical satellite that altogether would bring in an additional 94 million euros.

Thales Alenia Space said each SAR and optical satellite would weigh about 170 kilograms and be based on its modular NIMBUS (New Italian Micro Bus) platform.

OHB Italy and Argotec announced their IRIDE contract wins in December for a total 22 multispectral satellites worth a combined 68 million euros.

The contracts signed by OHB and Argotec include options for an additional 12 and 15 satellites, respectively, for an extra 58 million euros combined.

D-Orbit announced April 5 it had secured a 26 million euro contract to build a SAR satellite for IRIDE, which would be based on the ION Satellite Carrier orbital transfer vehicle (OTV) it builds in-house.

Italian technology developer MetaSensing is supplying the radar for this satellite. 

D-Orbit’s contract includes a 24 million euro option for an additional SAR satellite.

A decision on a second satellite “should be made by the end of this year,” a D-Orbit spokesperson said, “depending on the performance of the work” on its first IRIDE satellite.

The company declined to discuss specifications for the Earth observation satellite but said it expects to release more details about the project in a few months.

Sitael has a contract for four hyperspectral IRIDE satellites in a deal covering options for another two spacecraft that “may host a payload yet to be selected by ESA,” ESA IRIDE program manager Guido Levrini told SpaceNews. Italian multinational aerospace company Leonardo is providing the instruments for Sitael, which is basing the satellites on its 200-kilogram all-electric satellite platform Platino.

Altogether, that puts IRIDE at 34 commissioned satellites with options for 35 more.

“In addition, nothing prevents us (budget and schedule permitting) to add satellites through extensions of the scope of the current contracts,” Levrini said via email.

Space tug 

D-Orbit’s business primarily revolves around an OTV delivery service that it first demonstrated in 2020. 

“ION is an OTV, but it is also a satellite platform which can carry out in-orbit experiments, accommodate edge computing applications and space cloud services,” said Stefano Antonetti, D-Orbit’s vice president of business development and institutional sales.

The company says it has transported around 100 payloads in orbit over eight missions to date, including 73 satellites deployed from ION and additional payloads hosted onboard the spacecraft.

This is also not the first time the company has secured a contract to develop a standalone satellite. 

The company is prime contractor for a 10 million euro SAR satellite project secured in 2019 called NOCTUA Landscape Monitoring, which aims to keep tabs on infrastructure in Italy’s northern Lombardia region for government agencies and residents. MetaSensing is also part of the consortium for this project.

D-Orbit’s first satellite, a spacecraft the size of three cubesats, was launched in 2017 to validate the company’s propulsive technologies.

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...