PARIS — A team led by Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy and OHB Technology of Germany has been selected to build Europe’s next-generation meteorological satellites following a hotly contested — and politically charged — competition with Astrium Satellites of Germany, according to industry officials.
In what is likely the biggest single space-hardware contract to be signed this year in Europe, the Thales Alenia/OHB consortium will be prime contractors for the six Meteosat Third Generation Satellites. The contract value is expected to be around 1.4 billion euros ($1.9 billion). The six MTG satellites — four imaging satellites and two equipped with sounders — will operate from geostationary orbit. The three-axis-stabilized satellite design is a sharp departure from previous Meteosat satellite designs, a fact that reduced the incumbency advantage of Thales Alenia Space as prime contractor for the previous set of Meteosat spacecraft, which were spin-stabilized.
The decision will not mean an immediate contract for the winning team. Instead, the 18-nation European Space Agency (ESA) will enter into final negotiations with Thales Alenia Space and OHB to settle open issues.
The total Meteosat Third Generation (MTG) program is budgeted at about 3.3 billion euros, including the construction and launch of the satellites, a ground infrastructure and two decades of system operations. Some 75 percent of the total budget is from Europe’s Eumetsat meteorological satellite organization of Darmstadt, Germany, with ESA acting as satellite contracting authority.
An ESA evaluation board reviewing the two bids met three times – in November and December, and then again Feb. 3 – before deciding the issue. ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain had conceded that the agency had received an unusual amount of political pressure from governments backing one bid or another. But Dordain insisted that ESA, on behalf of its own member states and of Eumetsat, would decide on the basis of technical quality and price.
The decision was made all the more difficult because France and Germany each have a 34 percent investment stake in the Meteosat Third Generation program at ESA.
A German government official said that while the Thales Alenia Space/OHB bid would mean the program prime contractor would be in France, this bid contained as much work for German industry as the Astrium Satellites bid.
ESA officials declined to comment on the program Feb. 5. A formal announcement is expected the week of Feb. 8.