Quality Control, Transparency Pushes ESA to ITAR-Free Products

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  Space News Business

Quality Control, Transparency Pushes ESA to ITAR-Free Products

By PETER B. de SELDING
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 28 April 2009
11:01 am ET






PARIS — The European Space Agency (ESA) is gradually moving toward an ITAR-free posture for sensitive satellite components for reasons having as much to do with quality control as with the larger goal of achieving autonomy in space technologies, ESA and European industry officials said.

ITAR, or the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, is a suite of restrictions the
United States
imposes on technology exports that includes most satellite components. Even when these components are approved for export – such as to
U.S.
allies in
Europe
– they cannot be examined in ways that permit quality-assurance oversight that ESA is taking on as one of its duties.

“With ITAR, it’s the black-box theory,” said Jack Bosma, head of ESA’s quality department. “You have no access to what is in there. You cannot open it or look at it. ESA is not allowed to open those components.”

Commercial satellites were made subject to ITAR restrictions in the late 1990s following allegations that
China
was benefiting militarily from launches of U.S.-built spacecraft.

The new rules were viewed as a way to keep
China
out of the commercial launch market and thereby make it difficult for
China
to perfect its rockets and apply that expertise to missile development.

Industry officials say
China
has nonetheless been able to develop its Long March family of rockets by relying almost solely on the strength of Chinese launch demand.

European governments have not shared the
U.S.
view that
China
should not be permitted to launch commercial satellites, and they permit their satellite builders to sell into
China
as they wish. But European industry has been slow to adopt ITAR-free product lines and have not fully capitalized on what some satellite builders say is only a minor competitive advantage.

Some European officials say the only company whose business has possibly been seriously affected by ITAR is
Europe
‘s Arianespace launch consortium of
Evry
,
France
, which presumably has won business that, without ITAR, would have gone to
China
.

“It is a paradox that Arianespace has been protected by this,” Antonio Fabrizi, ESA’s director of launchers, said in an April 17 interview.

One European satellite prime contractor, ThalesAlenia Space of
France
and
Italy
, has developed a product line that is free of ITAR-controlled parts and has sold two full satellites and several satellite electronics payloads for launch aboard Chinese rockets.

Thales
Alenia Space officials say what they are doing is a logical business response to a regulatory environment that has made dealing with their
U.S.
component suppliers more difficult.

European government and industry officials say that, while ITAR makes dealing with
U.S.
suppliers more complicated, time-consuming and ultimately more expensive, they have found ways to work around the issues in the last 10 years. In any event, they say, they do not expect substantial ITAR modifications anytime soon.

In addition to ThalesAlenia Space, OHB-System of
Bremen
,
Germany
, is developing a commercial telecommunications satellite product that is intended ultimately to be ITAR-free. With development funded by ESA and the German Aerospace Center, DLR, OHB’s Small-GEO program is expected to result in the launch of what OHB calls its Luxor satellite design starting in 2012. Satellite fleet operator Hispasat of Spain is the first customer.

Depending on where the U.S. dollar is trading relative to the euro, opting for an ITAR-free product may be costly. Replacing a
U.S.
component supplier that has a relatively large-volume, low-unit-cost production line with a European, Japanese or South Korean supplier could mean paying substantially more for the desired components.

Nonetheless, with the blessing of ESA and DLR, OHB is heading in that direction.

“ESA and DLR are aiming to solely incorporate competitive European-made hardware in the system, thus developing a product possessing the ‘Made in
Europe
‘ seal of quality,” OHB Founder Manfred Fuchs said in the company’s current annual report. “Other advantages [of the Small-Geo/Luxor design] include a shorter production period of around 24 months [and] the ability to deliver the satellite to any destination around the world.”

The
Luxor
satellite line will compete directly with the Star-2 product built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of
Dulles
,
Va.
Orbital has already demonstrated its ability to deliver a completed telecommunications satellite in 24 months.

The distinguishing trait of OHB’s satellite will be that it can be sold anywhere, approved by
Germany
‘s own technology export regulations.

Bosma
said ESA’s concerns with
U.S.
components are pragmatic. Without being able to examine the guts of a given satellite system, ESA cannot respond to anomaly alerts or develop its planned database on satellite in-orbit hardware failures.

Simon Weinberg of ESA’sEstec technology center in
Noordwijk
,
Netherlands
, said assembling a database of ESA-approved gear will allay insurance underwriters’ concerns when components are used for the first time.

ESA officials said the database needs input from contractors, and could become an international reference for satellite hardware. Bosma said ESA has begun talks with the Indian Space Research Organisation and with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency on exchanging satellite test data. ITAR makes difficult any
U.S.
participation in this process.

Bosma
said the European Cooperation for Space Standardization (ECSS) initiative should be legally binding for those manufacturers using the listed products, meaning the ECSS seal could not be used until the recommended integration and testing procedures are followed. “This would be a way of taking at least part of the risk out of using these products,” he said.

Bosma
said the catalog would include only components that have reached Technology Readiness Level 6, meaning they have been successfully demonstrated in a relevant environment, such as a vacuum chamber replicating the conditions of space.

Ultimately, he said, suppliers will be encouraged to notify ESA of anomalies, or of any changes to their testing procedures, on penalty of being barred from using the ECSS label. “This whole effort is about increasing transparency,” Bosma said. “If we know there is a problem with a certain supplier, we can do something about it.”



ESA