Satellite component supplier Sodern seeks to double output by 2020

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WASHINGTON — Spacecraft manufacturers have complained of stress on their supplier base as operators purchase fewer traditional geostationary satellites. One company in France is bucking that trend, however.

Sodern, a subsidiary of ArianeGroup that builds star trackers — components that enable satellites to orient themselves in space — plans to double its annual production rate to keep pace with growing demand from the small satellite sector.

“We must multiply by a factor of two our production rate between today and 2020,” Franck Poirrier, CEO of Sodern, said in an interview. “Today the capacity we deliver is 60 star trackers in 2018. Now we need 120 in 2020. It is very good news for us.”

To reach that level, Poirrier said Sodern, located in the Parisian suburb of Limeil-Brévannes, plans to increase its headcount by 10 percent from today’s base of 450 people.

Poirrier said Sodern’s expansion is separate from its work with OneWeb, which has an order for 1,800 star trackers — two per satellite — for the 900 small satellites the broadband startup is building with Airbus Defence and Space. Sodern was one of OneWeb’s first publicly announced suppliers for its fleet of 145-kilogram satellites.

Instead, new low-Earth-orbit business is coming from programs such as Airbus Defence and Space’s Pléiades Neo Earth-observation fleet of four satellites, Canada’s three-satellite Radarsat fleet and Europe’s Sentinel-3C satellite, Sodern spokesperson Rémy Lambertin said.

Sodern has designed a new star tracker called Auriga for OneWeb’s satellites that could further the supplier’s presence in the smallsat sector. Poirrier said Auriga is slightly inferior in lifetime and accuracy compared to the Hydra star trackers produced for multi-ton geostationary satellites, but brings drastic benefits in price, size and mass.

Whereas a Hydra star tracker weighs 2.5 kilograms and measures about the size of a shoebox, an Auriga star tracker weighs just 200 grams and is roughly the same size as a soda can. Poirrier declined to give specific prices for either, but said Hydra star trackers cost as much as a house, while Auriga star trackers cost as much as a car.

Star trackers represent 38 percent of Sodern’s revenue, Poirrier said, though the company also provides other space hardware. Sodern is building optical navigation systems for the European Space Agency’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) mission, which is planned for launch in 2022, and NASA’s Europa Clipper, a mission awaiting a launch date on NASA’s Space Launch System rocket. Those interplanetary navigation systems are derived from satellite star trackers, he said.

Sodern also built the three seismic sensors onboard NASA’s Mars Insight lander that reached the red planet Nov. 26. The complete seismometer, which was led by the French space agency CNES and collaboratively built with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, suffered delays that prevented a March 2016 launch. Lambertin said the seismic sensors from Sodern, which can detect movements roughly the size of a hydrogen atom, did not encounter any problems.

In addition to satellite equipment and space hardware, Sodern builds components for defense applications and atomic technologies.

Poirrier said Sodern is researching new optical technologies for satellites, such as inter-satellite links and optical switches for telecom payloads. Sodern is also working on star trackers for aircraft and other vehicles that could substitute for satellite navigation systems like GPS or Galileo, he said. Ground-based star trackers have the added challenge of having to work during the day, he said, but are still a product the company views as promising. Sodern hopes to have daytime star trackers on French military systems in a few years, he said.