Thales Alenia Gets Going on Second-generation Cosmo-SkyMed Radar Satellites

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PARIS — Satellite builder Thales Alenia Space on Sept. 2 said it had signed a contract with the Italian government to build one of the two planned next-generation radar reconnaissance satellites and to purchase the needed equipment for the second.

The contract is the latest development in the long Cosmo-SkyMed financial roller coaster. Inconsistent Italian government funding threatened to cancel the program until what appeared to be a definitive government commitment early this year.

The contract announced Sept. 2, signed with the Italian Space Agency, is valued at 182 million euros ($200 million). Of that sum, Telespazio of Rome, a provider of satellite services and ground equipment, will receive 28 million euros for its share of the ground segment work.

Thales Alenia Space and Telespazio announced separately that they had received a contract from the Polish Ministry of Defense to provide a Cosmo-SkyMed ground network on Polish territory.

The Polish and Italian defense ministries in March agreed to terms under which Polish authorities would have access to Cosmo-SkyMed data and could play a role in building the second-generation system’s ground segment.

Italy and Germany both operate radar Earth observation constellations. Cosmo-SkyMed has a mixed military/civil government/commercial mission. Germany’s SAR-Lupe constellation is military only. The Terra-SAR/TanDem-X satellites are available for commercial use.

The Polish ground segment will be implemented in two phases. The first, to be ready for operations by early 2017, will give Poland access to the four first-generation Cosmo-SkyMed satellites now in orbit. The second will be finished by 2019 and give Polish military authorities similar access to the two second-generation satellites.

The current Cosmo-SkyMed satellites are capable of generating imagery with a ground resolution sharper than 1 meter across, which is reserved for government and military use. The remaining capacity, from a 1-meter resolution to less-sharp imagery for broader coverage, is for civil government and commercial customers.

These four satellites were launched between 2007 and 2010. The older two are beyond their contracted design lives, a fact that gave some urgency to the second-generation decision.

Without enough funding to secure a full four-satellite replacement constellation, the Italian government agreed to order two satellites, with the first to be launched in 2018 and the second a year later.

The Sept. 2 contract permits Thales Alenia Space, a joint venture between Thales Group of France and Italy’s Finmeccanica, to build the first in time for a 2018 launch. The company said in a statement that it will need, by early 2016, full financing to complete assembly, integration and testing of the second satellite to make the 2019 launch date.

Neither of the two launches needed for the satellites is part of the financing. Each satellite is expected to weigh about 2,200 kilograms at launch – too heavy for the current version of the Italian-led Vega rocket. In the past, the Italian Defense Ministry has demonstrated a sharp independence when it comes to launcher selection.

Within Europe, the Europeanized version of Russia’s Soyuz rocket would be most likely choice for the two Cosmo-SkyMed satellites.

The Italian Space Agency is acting as Cosmo-SkyMed contracting authority on behalf of the Italian Defense Ministry and the Italian Ministry of Education, Universities and Research.