Exhibitor Spotlight: Thales Alenia Space

Sven Carstensen is managing director at space systems company Thales Alenia Space Deutschland (TASD), the German branch of the Franco-Italian space conglomerate Thales Alenia Space. Based at Ditzingen, near Stuttgart, TASD has a major role in the development of satellite navigation systems EGNOS (the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service) and Galileo. We caught up with him to talk about his company, current projects, and thoughts on the state of the space industry.

sven-carstensenAs a space systems company, Thales Alenia Space works in a lot of different fields. Could you tell us a little about your scope?

We were created from a merger of the aerospace manufacturing capabilities of the French Alcatel and Italian Leonardo-Finmeccanica companies in2005. Alcatel’s stake in the business was bought by Thales. We have some 7,500 employees, with 14 manufacturing locations in Europe and representatives around the world. We offer services in the telecommunications and navigation spaces, as well as Earth observation and space exploration, both manned and unmanned. 

Thales Alenia Space Deutschland is a rather small team of 80 local employees, though we’re growing. Software development and the testing and simulation of data systems is one of our specialisms.

We understand you built several crucial elements of the International Space Station (ISS). What can you tell us about that?

Yes – in fact, we’re the biggest provider of pressurised volume on the ISS, and the second-largest overall industrial provider for the project after Boeing. The station’s Cupola, for instance, where the astronauts tend to spend a lot of their free time because of the fantastic views of Earth, was constructed by our Italian colleagues. They also built the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Columbus laboratory module.

What other interesting space infrastructure projects are you involved with?

Thales MTG

Well, alongside the ISS, the company provided the pressurised components of the ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), five of which were used to deliver supplies to the station and remove waste for a controlled burn-up in Earth’s atmosphere. Although the ATV programme had its last mission in 2014, elements of the design survive in the Cygnus ferry spacecraft being built by [US space contractor] Orbital ATK, and in the Service Module for NASA’s new Orion spacecraft. 

Pic right — MTG: Built by Thales Alenia Space as prime contractor on behalf of ESA and EUMETSAT, Meteosat Third Generation (MTG) is the third generation of European meteorological satellites. The MTG space segment comprises 6 satellites: 4 imaging models and 2 atmospheric sounders*

Communications satellites are an important area of business for Thales Alenia Space. What can you share on that subject?

We’re Europe’s largest satellite manufacturer, and a worldwide leader in communications satellite constellations. For example, we’re building 81 satellites for the Iridium NEXT satellite telephony network, and 24 satellites for the second-generation Globalstar network. 

We’ve recently re-entered the market with a new product line called Spacebus Neo, developed from our long-serving and reliable Spacebus satellite bus. It’s available in a variety of configurations, some of which even have all-electric propulsion. Various customers have told us exactly the kind of product they want, and we’ve already had orders, so we consider ourselves well positioned for future competition on these kinds of products.

And are there other satellite applications that you’re working on?

Well, we were involved in devising, testing, and installing the ground segment elements of the EGNOS project [a satellite navigation overlay for use in civil aviation and other demanding

ThalesThe Galileo IOV*

applications], as well as the European Galileo GPS navigation system. In terms of Earth observation and particularly weather and climate monitoring, we’ve worked on testing of the polar-orbiting METOP-SG* satellite, and on simulations for the third-generation Meteosat family, which monitor weather from geostationary orbit.

Pic above — The Galileo IOV* (In-Orbit Validation) navigation satellite being integrated in Thales Alenia Space's clean rooms in Rome. All four Galileo IOV* satellites were assembled, integrated and tested by Thales Alenia Space*

What are the different challenges of working with big space agencies as opposed to corporate clients?

Both kinds of customer have identically high demands, although space agencies are more process-driven and corporate clients are more price-driven. A challenge when you’re working with space agencies is that their budgets are still under pressure and sometimes shrinking. In Europe, we’re also now facing pressure from the US New Space sector – the various initiatives coming out of people and companies rooted in the internet. We have to keep pace and sustain the business because they’re demanding low-cost access to space for new ideas; space technology is no longer the priority, what’s first for these guys is the application itself, and that presents new challenges.

Thales Alenia Space has contributed to some important scientific missions, most recently the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter. What can you tell us about the demands of working with academic researchers?

Thales ExoMars EDM*

Well, we work very closely with academics through ESA, DLR [the German space agency], EUMETSAT [European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites], and other organisations. It’s very enjoyable but it’s challenging! Instruments are provided sometimes by ourselves, sometimes by competitors, and often by small and medium-sized companies, so we have a lot of exchange and collaboration. 

We were involved in the ExoMars program from the beginning, developing a simulator for the Trace Gas Orbiter, which has recently arrived in orbit. Even if the Schiaparelli lander hit the ground faster than planned, the mission as a whole was still a success and the satellite is now gathering data.

Pic right — ExoMars Descent and Landing Demonstrator dedicated to the 2016 mission, here at Thales Alenia Space*

Finally, how do you see the industry developing in the future? 

The challenge between the so-called New Space enterprises and the traditional space agencies and corporations will definitely continue to be a topic. My own opinion is that one shouldn’t underestimate the achievements of the more traditional space organisations – new space will bring in a lot of new ideas and challenges, but we also have a lot of responsibility for maintaining the space environment. My particular concern is that all these planned mass constellations, with large numbers of low-cost satellites, carry with them a risk of putting too much debris into the orbital plane. Access to orbit is a resource, and with all the challenges that new space brings in terms of cost reductions and new ideas, we also have to ensure that the space industry remains sustainable, because it’s an asset for all of humankind now.

*A Programme of and funded by the European Space Agency


Visit Thales Alenia Space Deutschland at Space Tech Expo Europe 2017 at Stand E42