PARIS — Infrared sensor manufacturer Sofradir has seen its satellite business more than double in the past few years as Earth observation spacecraft prices reduce and more governments are able to afford them.
The Paris-based company, which sold a record 26 infrared sensors for satellite missions in 2010, is looking to do the same order of business in 2011 and is optimistic about keeping volumes at that level for several years, said Jacques Chautemps, Sofradir’s manager for space product sales.
“It used to be we were booking just a few per year,” Chautemps said in an interview. “But now there are more and more projects and we are able to offer delivery times and prices that leverage our volume production.”
Sofradir reported 2010 revenue of 130 million euros ($172 million), of which slightly more than 30 million euros was for satellite sensors.
Chautemps said Sofradir’s success resides in its ability to leverage its already high production level of terrestrial military infrared sensors for space use.
The company produces more than 4,000 infrared detectors per year, a rate that includes input from the company’s U.S.-based Electrophysics subsidiary in Fairfield, N.J., which Sofradir purchased in 2009 and which specializes mainly in nonspace-related infrared equipment, principally for terrestrial military and security customers.
Sofradir credits its early success in developing its current range of Mercury Cadmium Telluride (MCT) sensors to research contracts financed by the 18-nation European Space Agency (ESA). Current research, also partly financed by ESA, is designed to bring to market a High Operating Temperature variety of infrared detector.
In the infrared field, “high temperature” is for a sensor capable of operating at minus 123 degrees Celsius as opposed to minus 183 degrees, a capacity that reduces the amount of power needed on the satellite to maintain low-temperature operating environment. Sofradir said the High Operating Temperature sensors consume less than 2 watts of power — 60 percent less than the standard sensors.
The company supplied infrared sensors for France’s two-satellite Helios 2 military reconnaissance satellite system, whose first satellite was launched in 2004; and the two French military Spirale missile-warning demonstration satellites.
On the civil side, which in Europe is much larger than the government market, Sofradir is a supplier to ESA and the European Commission of infrared sensors for the two Sentinel 2 Earth observation satellites and for ESA’s Venus Express orbiter.
The Sentinel satellites are part of Europe’s broad Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program. Also part of that program is a so-called Sentinel 5 mission, which ESA is managing with Dutch government support. The short-wave infrared spectrometer to be used for that mission is being built by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. of Britain, with Sofradir providing its MCT detectors.
Dutch Space of The Netherlands is prime contractor for the Sentinel 5 mission.
Surrey Satellite said in announcing its Sentinel 5 contract that the MCT detectors are less susceptible to space radiation than the detector arrays used on ESA’s Envisat multimission Earth observation satellite, launched in 2002.
The Sentinel 5 payload is designed to monitor levels of carbon monoxide and methane in the atmosphere. It will be launched as a piggyback payload aboard a Metop polar-orbiting meteorological satellite being built by Europe’s Eumetsat organization.
Chautemps said Sofradir had no immediate plans for an acquisition in Europe, although he conceded that growth in its home region may depend on merging or establishing a joint venture with a competitor. ESA’s geographic-return policy means contracts are distributed based on which government backs a given mission, with that government’s domestic industry guaranteed a proportionate share of the program’s contract awards.
In Europe, Sofradir competes in the delivery of infrared sensors with AIM Infrarot-Modul GmbH of Germany and with Selex Galileo, a division of Finmeccanica of Italy. Raytheon and Teledyne are the two most significant U.S. competitors, Chautemps said.
Eumetsat’s six-satellite Meteosat Third Generation meteorological system is the next big contract for satellite infrared sensors in Europe. Whether geographic-return considerations will weigh heavily on the selection of payload contractors is not clear.
ESA’s Earth observation budget appears to be surviving, thus far, the budget crisis affecting several ESA governments, but it is unlikely to increase much in the coming few years.
Sofradir has won contracts with Japan’s JAXA space agency for the Global Change Earth Observation Mission, and with NASA to provide detectors for a NASA observation program using an unmanned aerial vehicle flying over U.S. territory.
Chautemps said India, South Korea, Israel and Russia are among the most promising export markets for Sofradir in the near term.