Thales Alenia Space hedges bet on serially built, reprogrammable small GEOs

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PARIS — Thales Alenia Space is shedding around 6% of its workforce while rolling out a new line of reprogrammable satellites it says will benefit from an Iridium Next-style production.

Some 500 employees out of 8,000 total will be leaving the Franco-Italian satellite builder, many through transfers to other parts of its majority shareholder Thales Group, Jean-Loïc Galle, CEO of Thales Alenia Space, said Sept. 10. 

In a presentation at World Satellite Business Week here, Galle said that while weak demand for geostationary communications satellites triggered the downsizing, Thales Alenia Space is in a heated race for several satellite bids that could soon lead to an influx of new business. 

Thales Alenia Space’s power play in this market is a new all-electric satellite called Inspire, short for “Instant Space In-orbit Reconfiguration,” that executives say will be low cost thanks to serial production. 

“We reasonably expect to have a first order before the end of the year,” Galle said, adding that some regional operators for which Thales Alenia Space is shortlisted have satellites so close to their end of life that they cannot hold out much longer without securing replacements. 

Like Boeing’s recently unveiled 702X small GEO and Airbus Defence and Space’s OneSat, Thales Alenia Space’s Inspire satellites emphasize low mass and digital payloads in order to win customers. Galle said three Inspire satellites can launch on the same rocket, enabling cost savings on getting to orbit. 

Inspire satellites will have a mass of around 2,000 kilograms, Pascal Homsy, executive vice president of Thales Alenia Space’s telecommunication business line, said. 

Less scalable, more repeatable

Unlike Boeing’s 702X series, Inspire is not scalable to large, 1-terabit-per-second satellites. Homsy said Inspire’s cost savings require keeping the spacecraft in the 100-200 gigabits-per-second range. The final amount of capacity would depend in part on the ground infrastructure, he said. 

Homsy said Inspire will be able to approximate the cost per megabit of a satellite with five times as much capacity. Inspire satellites will be more flexible than the 500 gigabits-per-second Konnect VHTS satellite Thales Alenia Space is building for Eutelsat, he said, thanks to a highly capable digital transparent processor. 

Thales Alenia Space executives declined to say exactly how much cheaper Inspire will be compared to other satellites, only that the amount is significant. To achieve low prices, however, executives acknowledged that they will have to build Inspire satellites at scale. 

Didier Leboulch, Thales Alenia Space’s head of strategy and telecom solutions, said the company expects to build six Inspire satellites a year. 

When asked by SpaceNews what might happen to prices if production never reaches that rate, Thales Alenia Space executives only reiterated their confidence that sales will validate their plan. 

“Given the demand from customers, I think we will be quickly at six,” Homsy said. 

Homsy said the first Inspire satellite should be ready by 2023. Subsequent spacecraft will take 18 months to build, he said, leveraging standardized parts to accelerate production. 

Leboulch said Thales Alenia Space’s goal is to “transpose to the GEO market what we achieved for Iridium,” — a customer for which the manufacturer built 81 low-Earth orbit satellites over the last few years. “By building a small series of identical spacecraft, we really realize this effect of savings, and we intend to make our customers benefit,” he said. 

Thales Alenia Space is only building Inspire satellites with Ku- and Ka-band capacity. For operators who want large amounts of capacity in other frequencies, Thales Alenia Space’s Spacebus Neo is a better fit, Leboulch said. 

Inspire has room for hosted payloads for operators who want some capacity in other frequencies or who want to support other missions, Leboulch said. Medium Earth orbit operators can also use Inspire, he said.

Galle said Inspire draws on 300 million euros in internal research and development, as well as support from the French and European space agencies. The satellites are designed for a 15-year service life, like most geostationary satellites, Leboulch said. 

Galle said winning new business with Inspire could affect how much restructuring the company has to complete. The 500-person reduction will take place mainly in France, and more than 50% in the company’s telecommunications business, he said. Thales Alenia Space’s current plans call for restructuring to conclude by mid-2020, Galle said.