Turkey’s Gokturk-1 Imaging Satellite in Limbo at Thales Alenia Space

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PARIS — Turkey’s Gokturk-1 high-resolution optical reconnaissance satellite remains stuck, largely completed, in a production facility in France because of last-minute issues between the Turkish government and the satellite’s French and Italian contractors, government and industry officials said.

Scheduled for launch aboard a European Vega rocket, Gokturk-1 has disappeared from the 2015 manifest. Even if it were released from Thales Alenia Space’s Cannes, France, facility immediately, the satellite must undergo extensive final assembly, integration and testing at a showcase new Turkish facility that is expected to demonstrate its new technical know-how with Gokturk-1.

Assisting Turkey transition from satellite buyer to satellite builder was one of Ankara’s goals both in the Gokturk-1 satellite contract, signed in 2009 with Telespazio of Rome, and in Turkey’s recent telecommunications satellite projects. Telespazio contracted with its sister company, Thales Alenia Space, to build Gokturk-1.

Turkey’s national telecommunications satellite operator, Turksat, in recent years has gradually increased its satellite manufacturing knowledge in contracts with Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy, and more recently with Mitsubishi Electric Co. of Japan.

Turksat 4A and Turksat 4B.
Turksat 4A and Turksat 4B. Credit: Mitsubishi Electric

Mitsubishi is prime contractor for the Turksat 4A and Turksat 4B satellites. Turksat 4A was launched in February 2014. Turksat 4B is waiting its turn in the backlog of launches scheduled on the Russian Proton rocket, and is expected to be launched this year.

Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) in December contracted with the Turkish government to build a Turksat 6A, a Ku- and X-band satellite that will be labeled Turkey’s first domestically built telecommunications satellite but likely will feature substantial foreign content.

In a briefing here Feb. 4 during Paris Space Week, Cem Unal, head of the contract office at TAI, said his company has begun to search for Turksat 6 component suppliers.

The assembly, integration and test (AIT) facility in Ankara was expected to be fully qualified this year based on the processing of Gokturk-1. TAI hopes to develop the facility into a regular stop for satellites from many nations that would be assembled and tested in Turkey and then shipped directly to their spaceports.

“AIT is the most important capability of TAI in space,” Unal said. “It is not 100 percent functional at the moment because we are waiting for the Gokturk-1 satellite from Thales Alenia Space.”

Turkey’s role in Gokturk-1 extends beyond AIT functions, however. TAI provided the satellite body side panels, which were delivered to Thales Alenia Space in September 2013.

AIT Center at Turkish Aerospace Industries
AIT Center at Turkish Aerospace Industries. Credit: TAI

Unal declined to speculate on when Gokturk-1 would be shipped to Ankara. He said “the governments” are negotiating a resolution of the issue. It remained unclear whether the sticking points were related to Turkey’s final milestone payments to Telespazio, which then would pay Thales Alenia Space, or some other issue.

In its early going, the Gokturk-1 program was a subject of debate about what limits should be put on high-resolution satellites sold for export, and whether “shutter control,” or the ability of the selling nation to determine what images are taken, and where, would be a mandatory part of the contract.

In the end, Turkish officials made clear they would not accept shutter control. Since then, the issue has lost some of its force as multiple satellites with ground-sampling distances sharper than 1 meter have been sold in the Middle East and South America.

As such, other parts of the world have caught up with Gokturk-1, whose performance characteristics are similar to France’s two commercial/military Pleiades satellites in orbit.

A Telespazio spokesman on Feb. 4 said the company would decline to comment on the status of the Gokturk-1 contract and referred questions to the Turkish government.

Unal said the AIT facility is capable of handling satellites intended for low Earth orbit, such as Earth imaging spacecraft, and the higher geostationary orbit, the destination of most telecommunications satellites. A spacecraft weighing up to 5,000 kilograms at launch could be processed through the plant, he said.

Unal said the Turkish government has recently approved a Gokturk-3 satellite, this one equipped with a synthetic-aperture radar imager. The TAI contract for now extends only to the end of the preliminary design review, before construction starts. Hardware manufacturing, with non-Turkish assistance but under TAI management, should start in 2016, he said.