Thales Alenia Space on IAC, new solutions from the company, satellite market trends and challenges

In an exclusive interview with SatellitePro, Herve Derrey, Executive Vice President of Thales Alenia Space, sheds light on the company's development in digital solutions for telecommunications and space observation as well as the future of satellite.
Herve Derrey, Executive Vice President of Thales Alenia Space

What solutions did Thales Alenia Space present at the IAC Congress? 

At the IAC booth, we highlighted our Earth observations and exploration solutions. In particular, we presented a virtual reality experience in the Lunar Gateway. In parallel, I’m personally participating in the ESA sustainability event, sustainability being a strong market growth driver, notably in Europe. Moreover, during IAC, Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Thales Alenia Space and ALTEC, the Aerospace Logistics Technology Engineering Company, to identify opportunities to study and develop solutions for space and planetary exploration systems. 

Thales Alenia Space is involved in a lot of satellite contracts with key players such as the European Space Agency, NASA etc. What makes it the most preferred company for satellites globally? 

Year after year, we have built a strong technological expertise, bringing us to solid reputation and leadership among our customers in all the markets we operate. European institutions, in particular, consider us as a first-in-class and trustful industrial partner. They recently awarded us for instance 50% of Galileo second Generation satellites and five of the six new Copernicus missions, of which the CO2 measurement instrument. 

In the exploration field, we are the European key actor to support ESA and NASA for the return to the Moon challenge. Our strong expertise combined with our worldwide leadership position in pressurised modules allowed us to provide three logistic and habitat modules for the Lunar Gateway and two habitat modules for the Axiom commercial space station. Our continuous and fruitful cooperation with national space agencies such as CNES in France or ASI in Italy also allows us to develop new technologies matching the fast-evolving market needs. 

What are the challenges faced in the current satellite market? 

We need to find the best compromise between, on one side, the new technological challenges driven by the increase of capacity and performance, demand for more flexibility, and, on the other side, competitiveness, and time to delivery. To meet these challenges, we have developed new solutions, as main example our software define satellite Space Inspire. In addition, we are now also facing sustainability challenges as space is seen as a new area to be protected. 

There is a growing demand for smaller, compact, and more agile satellites. What makes the big satellites that Thales Alenia Space works on unique and what makes you think there is still a market for bigger satellites. What are the challenges faced on this front and are you losing any market share?  

A customer-centric approach is the foundation of Thales Alenia Space Product policy. As a result, our product portfolio has evolved across the years, to anticipate and respond to customer expectations. 

Several years ago, we detected the need of flexibility, to adapt the mission to customer demand, in particular for missions dedicated to connectivity and mobility. Thales Alenia Space response to this need in telecommunications has been to introduce the smart and powerful combination of our Spacebus NEO platform with Digital Payloads using the 5th generation of our Digital Transparent Processor. 

Our Very High Throughoutput solution, embarking fully processed repeaters allows to modify resource allocation between beams and beam to beam connectivity, so unused or unsold resources should not be experienced anymore. It is a market success, with already 5 satellite orders. 

The next generation of Digital Payload is already under development to reach the next level of flexibility both in coverage and type of applications. Our Space Inspire product line will allow seamless telecommunication missions and services reconfiguration, instant in-orbit adjustment to the demand, outstanding flexibility for video broadcasting and broadband connectivity services, while maximizing the efficiency and effective use of the satellite resources. On top of repeater flexibility, fully Software Defined Satellites enable antenna coverage flexibility through active beam forming allowing to change the coverage and the mission during the satellite lifetime. This solution, being less CAPEX demanding is well adapted for regional operators to develop their activities with the possibility to deploy an incremental service with additional satellites. 

Concerning Non-Geo Stationary Orbit, the increasing demand in terms of constellations has also made us propose to develop generic building blocks, rather than designing one-shot projects: this approach will benefit our customers. 

We can say that the commercial market is shaped by complementary solutions. 

The market for Geostationary communication satellites experienced a major crisis in 2017-2018, but has now stabilized, although at a lower level than in the past. However, this trend is offset by contributions from satellite constellations. Even if all these projects are unlikely to come to fruition, the trend towards constellations is positive because it addresses the market’s requirements for constant connectivity, global coverage, and low latency. Furthermore, their development is being driven by the emergence of new applications (Internet of Things, space surveillance from space, 5G, Earth observation with high revisit rates, etc.). But constellations can’t totally offset previous demand for GEO services, and major operators are increasingly relying on complementary solutions, with GEO satellites providing resilience and carrying high-capacity or flexible missions, while constellations ensure global coverage (example: SES with O3b) 

What are the new technologies, innovations, and trends that we are seeing in new satellites and what is Thales Alenia Space role in bringing these to the global market? 

Innovation is in Thales Alenia Space’s DNA. As mentioned, the telecom market is driving innovation linked to flexibility and a key illustration is our Digital Transparent Processor of the fifth generation which is already onboard SES17 satellite dedicated to connectivity and launched a few days ago from Kourou for SES. 

In the observation domain, we are continuously innovating on our optical and radar solutions to provide high performance for the benefit of more and more precise missions. 

To complete the offer, we also develop innovative solutions in the field of the high revisit earth observation constellation. And, to take full advantage of the data value generated by these complementary offers, we are developing digital ground segment solutions. 

There is lot of debris in space now with dead satellites that have failed or been left in orbit at the end of their mission. Is Thales Alenia Space bringing any satellites that can self-burn or self-destruct in space after their lifetime?  

A trustful partner is also one that is acting responsibly through sustainable products and attentive use of resources. 

We have been working for a long time on space debris prevention. In France, our experts have cooperated with CNES Space Agency and other partners on the definition of the French Debris Mitigation Law, which is considered as precursor in the international scene. We are the prime contractor of the SWOT satellite, a joint mission between CNES and NASA, that will be the first one fitted by design with a controlled atmospheric reentry subsystem avoiding any debris generation at end-of-life. Moreover, all the satellites for the upcoming Copernicus mission will be fitted with this control reentry subsystem. We are also developing the Skylark constellation for Northstar which will be part of what we call SSA (Space Situational Awareness) allowing the help to avoid collisions.

We are also working on solutions to anticipate the satellite’s end of life by developing brand new on-orbit servicing vehicles that will carry out a wide range of operations directly in space: station keeping, refuelling, repairing, or upgrading in order to provide life extension with advanced robotic operations.

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