Thales Alenia Space Seeks Wider Market for Iridium Bus

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WASHINGTON — Thales Alenia Space is looking for a wider market for the satellite platform it has developed for the Iridium Next low-orbiting mobile communications satellites, with the first intended customer being the French Defense Ministry for an electronics-intelligence satellite, Thales Alenia Space officials said March 20.

In a briefing here during the Satellite 2013 conference, company officials said they are making a joint proposal with Astrium Satellites to French defense forces for the Ceres satellite, which is the only major military space program on the horizon in France.

French government authorities have yet to determine a military program law and related budget for 2014 and the following years. A white paper on proposed military spending priorities is expected to be released in the coming weeks by the current French administration, which arrived in office in mid-2012.

Thales Alenia Space Chief Executive Jean-Loic Galle said his company and Astrium have agreed on a division of authority under which Thales Alenia Space will provide its EliteBus, and the Ceres electronics-intelligence payload, with Astrium Satellites handling the satellite’s integration.

EliteBus is the platform being used by Thales Alenia Space as prime contractor for the 81-satellite Iridium Next constellation. The first two 800-kilogram Iridium Next satellites are scheduled for launch in February 2015.

Galle said the Iridium production line has given the company the opportunity to offer exceptionally low prices for satellites using the same platform, or bus, but for different applications. Ceres is one example, but there are multiple other applications in low and medium Earth orbit for the platform.

EliteBus weighs up to 435 kilograms, not including fuel, with a payload that can weigh up to 500 kilograms. There are 2 kilowatts of on-board power.

Galle said the Iridium program is going so well that the manufacturer and the owner, Iridium Communications of McLean, Va., have agreed to move up the inaugural launch of two satellites by about two months, to February 2015.

Thales Alenia Space, which is majority-owned by defense electronics manufacturer Thales Group of France and minority-owned by Italian aerospace giant Finmeccanica, is awaiting the Italian government’s decision on a second-generation Cosmo-SkyMed radar Earth observation satellite system.

The contract, to be valued at more than 400 million euros, had been expected in late 2012 but fell victim to the Italian elections and, more importantly, the company’s aggravated public-finance crisis.

Luigi Pasquali, Thales Alenia Space’s deputy chief executive and the head of the company’s Italian division, said the Cosmo-SkyMed contract is now expected in the coming weeks, and will be for two satellites to start.

Globalstar

Thales Alenia Space is also hoping for a final six-satellite contract from mobile satellite services provider Globalstar of Covington, La., now that 24 second-generation Globalstar satellites are in orbit.

Relations between Globalstar and Thales Alenia Space have been fraught, mainly because of Globalstar’s difficult financial position. Globalstar still owes Thales Alenia Space some $50 million in contract termination fees following an arbitration procedure triggered by Globalstar.

Globalstar and Thales Alenia Space officials in the past have said their engineering studies have concluded that the mobile satellite services operator does not need to replicate the 48-satellite configuration of its first-generation system. Instead, they have said a 30-satellite architecture will offer the hoped-for coverage and capacity.

Galle said he was optimistic that Globalstar and the French export-credit agency, Coface, which provided guarantees for Globalstar’s second-generation constellation financing, would conclude an agreement permitting Globalstar to order six final spacecraft.

But in a March 20 panel discussion here during the Satellite 2013 conference, Globalstar Chief Executive Jay Monroe said Globalstar may not need the six more satellites. Instead, he said, the company’s planned upgrade of its ground network could be conducted so that only 24 satellites are needed.

Globalstar has been delaying payments to its ground-network suppliers, Hughes and Ericsson, even as it seeks to postpone a Coface-ordered loan repayment schedule, which starts in June.