Thales Alenia Space Nabs $94 Million Contract for U.S.-French Ocean Topography Satellite

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PARIS — The French space agency, CNES, on Jan. 6 signed the first of a planned three contracts for the U.S.-French Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite, a mission in which the two governments plan to invest some $1.1 billion for a launch in 2020.

The first contract, valued at 78 million euros ($94 million), was awarded to Thales Alenia Space of France for development of the SWOT satellite platform and its integration. Other contracts will follow for specific SWOT instruments.

SWOT represents a large leap in capacity and coverage over the current series of Jason ocean-altimetry satellites developed by CNES and NASA and, more recently, with funding from the U.S. and European meteorological agencies — the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the 30-nation Eumetsat of Darmstadt, Germany.

The Jason-2 satellite currently in orbit, and past its contracted service life, is the latest in the series, with Jason-3’s launch delayed to mid-2015 in part because of delays in NASA’s certification of the Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Falcon 9 rocket that will carry Jason-3, CNES officials said.

In response to SpaceNews inquiries, NASA issued a statement saying its certification of Falcon 9 for Category 2 satellites — including Jason-3 — began in July 2012 and is not yet finished, but should be completed in time for a launch in May or June.

“The launch of Jason-3 will most likely be delayed due to a combination of SpaceX CRS-6 [space station cargo supply] acceleration in the production queue for the launch vehicle, range availability and to ensure readiness to launch the mission,” NASA said in its statement. “Jason-3’s launch is currently scheduled for late March 2015, but is likely to move to the late May or early June timeframe, pending Western Range coordination.

“NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP) awarded a launch service task order (LSTO) for Jason-3 to SpaceX in July 2012. SpaceX has been working to achieve a Category 2 [medium risk] certification with LSP since the LSTO was awarded. SpaceX has made tremendous progress toward achieving Category 2 certification with NASA with the majority of the items having been successfully completed; however, there are a few open items that SpaceX is working on in order to fully complete their certification effort. No “end date” has been set, but the certification is on track for a NASA decision prior to the Jason-3 launch.”

Falcon 9. Credit: SpaceX
NASA approves Falcon 9 (above) launches of cargo to the international space station, but a higher-level certification is needed for more valuable science and other satellites. Credit: SpaceX

NASA approves Falcon 9 launches of cargo to the international space station, but a higher-level certification is needed for more valuable science and other satellites. The U.S. Air Force is in the final stages of certifying Falcon 9 for U.S. military launches, and both NASA and the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office have coordinated their policies for certifying new rockets with the Air Force.

It was also unclear whether the certification process has been slowed by the use of a recoverable Falcon 9 first stage for the launch. SpaceX is gradually introducing a reusable first stage into Falcon 9 operations. The Falcon 9 will have plenty of capacity remaining beyond what is needed to place the 2,000-kilogram SWOT satellite into its 890-kilometer orbit, making it a logical candidate for a stage-recovery mission.

A fourth Jason satellite, this one built with larger European participation, is being financed with European Commission and European Space Agency funding.

SWOT jumps a generation ahead. Its mission extends beyond precise measurements of ocean levels to include surface water levels in lakes and rivers using wide-swath interferometry from two Ka-band radar antennas, each 5 meters long, deployed at the end of two 5-meter booms extending from the satellite’s core.

NASA is financing about two-thirds of SWOT’s overall budget, which including the ground support network and operations totals about $1.1 billion. NASA is providing the launch vehicle, the Ka-band radar interferometer, a radiometer and a GPS receiver.

The French contribution, totaling more than $300 million, includes a nadir altimeter; the satellite’s platform and satellite assembly, integration and testing; a radio-frequency unit for the U.S.-built interferometer; and an altimeter. The U.K. Space Agency has contributed about 9 million euros to SWOT through CNES and will provide a part of the radar payload.

Jason-3 will be designed to provide its radar instrument with a stability to within one micron over its 5-meter length to assure high-precision data on water surface levels. It has two solar arrays designed to deliver 2 kilowatts of power to the payload, with a data-transmission speed of 360 megabits per second — compared to 830 kilobits per second for Jason-3. Credit: Jet Propulsion Laboratory
The Jason-2 satellite currently in orbit, and past its contracted service life, is the latest in the series, with Jason-3’s (above) launch delayed to mid-2015. Credit: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

The satellite will be designed to provide its radar instrument with a stability to within one micron over its 5-meter length to assure high-precision data on water surface levels. It has two solar arrays designed to deliver 2 kilowatts of power to the payload, with a data-transmission speed of 360 megabits per second — compared to 830 kilobits per second for Jason-3.

CNES officials said they persuaded their government to use monies from a French public bond fund called Investments for the Future once they were persuaded that NASA would be able to find the $750 million it needs for SWOT.

A U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report in April said SWOT’s schedule and overall viability was at risk because of France’s difficulty in financing the SWOT nadir altimeter.

CNES and Thales Alenia Space officials said that problem was solved when the French government agreed to boost its SWOT contribution to cover the nadir altimeter, which is similar to the altimeter to fly on Jason-3.

Genevieve Fioraso, France’s minister for space, attended the contract-signing ceremony and said that after spending much of 2014 rounding up financial support in Europe for a next-generation Ariane 6 rocket, her ministry is looking to 2015 as a year when satellites — “where the added value is,” she said — will be a priority for the government.

Thales Alenia Space Chief Executive Jean-Loic Galle said his company has committed to allocating at least 15 percent of the value of its SWOT contract to small and midsized companies, one of the conditions attached to the use of monies coming from the bond fund.