In-Orbit Satellite Services: Europe Needs a Second Generation Vehicle

Given the importance of space for many economic sectors, the strong development of space activity and its privatization, orbital services, already identified, require a multi-tasking vehicle that Europe does not have. Thales Alenia Space is working on this idea and hopes that ESA and the European Commission will decide to finance the first steps of this project. The explanations of Morena Bernardini, manager in charge of the development of new business at Thales Alenia Space.

The satellite service in orbit takes off. By 2020, propellant refueling and takeover missions will be launched to demonstrate that it is possible to extend the lifespan of satellites and maximize their operational life and revenue generation. This new era of commercial satellite exploitation will be marked by significant technological breakthroughs but also by new possibilities in terms of fleet management for satellite operators. On the following post you can read more about the Space Tourism.

But in this context of “re-use” – which will break the traditional pattern of exploitation and use of satellites by opening up new economic perspectives in space -, Europe is almost absent! Not surprisingly, the United States dominates this sector. In just a few years, about $ 400 million has been invested by NASA and Darpa in acquiring technologies related to in-orbit services. Partnerships have also been established with private companies, in a pattern now classic in the United States, where the public authorities finance the development of new technologies and then gives the field free to industrialists to exploit them for commercial purposes.

For Thales Alenia Space, “in-orbit satellite service is a major topic,” says Morena Bernardini, head of new business development. Aware that Europe has missed its pioneers in this new era, the company wants to position itself on “second-generation vehicles that will arrive much faster than we think” and thinks about a multitasking vehicle.

In a few years, the first generation space tug (space tug) will give way to “much more advanced vehicles that will not be limited to activities extending the life of satellites”. Many projects in orbit, with a variety of business models, are now “considered because of the technological spin-offs of previous programs and new technologies that are maturing”.

Very complex missions

This multi-tasking vehicle would be able to perform several missions that will meet “needs already identified with the key to new space markets.” The missions envisaged will concern “high-definition inspection, towing, refueling”, as well as more complex ones such as “repair of mechanical incidents, assembly of structures in orbit, installation of payloads. additional, improving existing functions, or even reconfiguring satellites for new missions. This vehicle will also be used for “active desorbitation of end-of-life satellites or orbital debris”.

All of these in-orbit services will be “offered to satellite operators, but also to space agencies and governments” who will all need them. Tomorrow, due to more stringent regulations, there will be a “deorbitation market that will concern mega-constellations but also the hundreds of thousands of small satellites in low Earth orbit”. As for air refueling, “a form of life extension of a smarter satellite than the Tuging,” its use will have a positive impact on the cost of the launch, the “satellite no longer having to ship several tons propellant as is the case today. In the field of robotics, we are “completely changing the paradigm” with unprecedented repair and assembly capabilities in orbit. For example, it will be possible to “deploy a solar panel or point a communication antenna in the right direction” and directly assemble into orbit the “largest parts of a satellite such as antennas that take up a lot of space in the headdress. ‘a launcher’.


Conceptual study of service in orbit. © Thales Alenia Space

Securing and monitoring the European space infrastructure

Finally, while the United States has announced the creation of a sixth armed force dedicated to space and the French Armed Forces Minister, Florence Parly, officially recognized that the French-Italian military satellite Athena-Fidus had been spied on by the Russian satellite Louch Olympe, this vehicle could be one of the elements of European sovereignty capable of monitoring its space infrastructure, in addition to traditional military satellites and the European Space Rider space drone.

At present, security in outer space depends to a large extent on the trust that states have in each other. But, given the recent events, this trust no longer seems to be in order! And resting the security of the European space infrastructure, on which many economic sectors and military activities depend, on simple declarations is obviously no longer sufficient.

To make this vehicle, Thales Alenia Space would like the European Space Agency and / or the European Commission to “contribute to its financing and start the initial studies”. Today, it is complicated for a company to “raise capital or finance a space program, with its own funds,” without some form of partnership with “a governmental or institutional body.” In this context, Thales Alenia Space is expected to make a proposal to ESA at the next ministerial council scheduled for the end of 2019. “We believe that the European institutions have a role to play in the realization of this vehicle, some of whose missions are institutional. ”

Thales Alenia Space will request the financing of a “demonstrator, or even financing to develop an operational vehicle”, with many possible synergies in key areas of “exploration and space robotics for example”. Synergies that should strengthen the interest of investing in this vehicle. In anticipation of this decision, Thales Alenia Space is preparing and building its future satellites with “interfaces designed for refueling in orbit and capable of interacting with robotic arms”. After reading this post, you maybe interested in reading about environmental science news articles.

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