How would you describe the history, evolution, and milestones of Thales Alenia Space Spain during these 30 years in which it has become a leader in areas such as space systems for telecommunications, Earth observation, environmental management, exploration, science, and so on?
Our company, as many others in the sector, started to develop starting from the late 1980s, when Spain decided to boost its technological development in space. In 1992, Hispasat launched its first satellite, Hispasat 1A, and many companies in the sector had started to develop equipment for that satellite. Thales Alenia Space was one of those companies. However, going back in history, the origins of the company dates back in the 1920s with Standard Electrica, which was the company that manufactured telephones and switching equipment in Spain. Standard Electrica was acquired by Alcatel in 1987, and renamed Alcatel Standard Electrica. One year later, in 1988, Alcatel Espacio (today Thales Alenia Space Spain) was eventually formed as a spinoff of Alcatel in Spain for the space market. We started with a small enthusiastic team around the development of what today is still one of our flagship products: the S-band TT&C transponder. Generation after generation, we managed to make the equipment smaller, lighter and more efficient, which is extremely important in space. Today we have extended our products portfolio and produce around 250 equipment per year in our factory, and we have one of the most advanced plants in the Spanish space sector. Our current portfolio includes radiofrequency equipment as well as digital electronics products. In addition, we have also developed ourselves throughout the value chain, by leading and integrating complex satellite systems and payloads. That challenged us to develop skills that we did not have, which are important in the space industry. By scaling up the value chain, we became responsible for systems engineering, satellite panels integration, and managing contracts with many other companies that supply different equipment. Right now, we are the top European supplier of satellite communication systems. We have been awarded some of the largest and most complex communication systems projects in Europe. One of our main clients is KARI, the South Korean space agency. In 2014 KARI awarded us a contract to develop three complete communication systems for their two new geostationary satellites, GEO-KOMPSAT-2A and 2B. The size of this project was huge, involving the integration of the largest satellite panels ever in Spain and requiring us to manage many subcontractors world-wide and processes to collaborate in the manufacturing of the satellites. I am proud to state that we did such great work that we won the Prize of Excellence. We have also participated in projects involved in planetary exploration, astrophysics and space defense. We delivered the communications system for Euclid, a mission that will explore the “Dark Universe” and we are now involved in PLATO, a “hunter” of exoplanets. Recently we have been awarded the communications system for a mission called HERA; a project to defend the Earth from the threat of an asteroid collision. Under this project, Europe will send an observation satellite to an asteroid at 500 millions of km from the Earth to study the effects of the kinetic impact from a previous mission sent by NASA, and understand if we are able to deflect the trajectory of a hazardous asteroid on a collision course with Earth. We are also heavily involved in the development of Europe's next generation of meteorological satellites, Meteosat Third Generation, operated by EUMETSAT. We are developing the communication transponders and data transmission systems for the six satellites, as well as the instruments' electronics and the on-board data and video processing units, the “brain” of these instruments. Another recent success has been with NASA, with whom we have signed a contract to develop the communications system for the VIPER lunar rover, a mission that will explore the south pole of the Moon to search for water ice, a key element for future exploration endeavors.
What percentage of your sales comes from abroad, and how much do you export?
Following our development along the value chain, last year we achieved our long-term goal, which was to become responsible for complete satellite telecommunications payloads. We achieved this crucial milestone in the frame of the Spanish program Spainsat NG for the Spanish operator Hisdesat. This is a defense program that consists of two satellites, and we are the prime contractor for the UHF and Ka-band payloads for both satellites. Before that, most of our activities were focused on export, representing up to 98% of our activities, demonstrating a high level of proficiency and competitiveness. Today, the situation has changed with Spainsat NG, which represents a large volume of activity in the domestic market, so that percentage of exports falls. However, the rest of our activities in equipment and systems remain focused on export markets.
Can you elaborate on the manufacturing of the Amazonas Nexus satellite from Hispasat, intended for mobility and connectivity?
Amazonas Nexus is a high capacity and flexible satellite, which will make it the most efficient satellite in Hispasat's fleet. Thales Alenia Space won a competitive bidding process and the contract was signed at the beginning of 2020. Amazonas Nexus has extremely complex equipment, including data processors and other sophisticated units, being developed in Spain. The satellite telecommunications market has been indeed one of the most successful business areas for our company, and certainly the one in which we have reached a higher position along the value chain.
What other business areas are key for the company?
In our 32 years of activity we have participated in many missions spanning telecommunications, Earth observation, navigation, exploration, space transportation vehicles and lately we have also entered the launchers domain. From here, we have collaborated in around 600 satellites and we have delivered more than 4,000 pieces of equipment, all of which operating without any issues. Furthermore, our equipment accumulate more than 200 million flight hours without failure. The importance of technology in this sector is huge, because the equipment cannot fail. A single failure can ruin an entire mission, so failures have to be reduced to a minimum. Beyond telecommunications, the other main business area for us is Earth observation. We have participated in 120 Earth observation satellites. One of our key successes in this domain is the Copernicus program, which is one of the pillars of the European Space Agency and the European Commission, and the most important program ever conceived in the field of Earth observation. We've had an important participation in the Sentinel 1, 2, and 3 missions now in-orbit and will also play an important role in the six new Copernicus missions. In navigation, we have our sights sets on the next Galileo missions for the next generation.
How has the pandemic affected your business, and what steps have you taken to mitigate its effects?
For us, as for everyone else, COVID-19 has been an unexpected event that has triggered a great deal of uncertainty. We did not know what was going to happen, and, therefore, our first priority was to guarantee the safety of our employees, customers and partners. When the first lockdown measures were announced, all our workers went home. We implemented all the sanitary strategies following the recommendations of the health authorities, and then we ensured the factory-related activities could resume in a safe environment, to ensure the continuity of the activities that are critical for our customers. We took many measures including social distancing, personal protection and smart working from home, and have not reported a single case of COVID-19 infection within our premises.
Thales Alenia Space is working on the expansion of its plant in Spain. When will it become fully operational?
Among other works, the expansion includes the construction of a large clean room area where the payloads of the Spainsat NG satellites will be integrated, starting by the end of next year. The facility will be ready in the coming weeks. For the first time, the national industry is able to develop a program of this complexity. The previous generation of satellites from Hisdesat, Spainsat and XTAR-EUR, were both developed by an American company called Space Systems Loral. Right now, the national industry is at a level where we can manage these complex projects. This is a great leap, that has been achieved in a few years. The Spanish satellite operators and the Spanish government are now able to rely on the efficiency of domestic companies to carry out such complex programs.
Reaching the European autonomy in space seems closer thanks to the PROMISE project, which is led from Spain by Thales Alenia Space. What are the main characteristics of your involvement on PROMISE?
We have, within Spain, an important presence in the domain of digital electronics for space and in particular in the development of Application-Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs), the “chips” of the satellites. The PROMISE initiative is a project to attain European independence in space, within the framework of the Horizon 2020 program of the European Commission. The program is 100% European, with partners in France, Greece, Belgium, Portugal and Finland, and we lead it from Spain. PROMISE will create a library in which mixed signal ASICs can be developed in Europe in the future in an easier manner, saving costs and reducing lead times. These chips are the “brains” of the satellites, and currently the European aerospace industry depends on non-European countries to produce them. It will be possible to subsequently add functions to the library. This is an important step in the next generation of European satellites, particularly in the trend towards satellite miniaturization and mass production for mega-constellations. With a single PROMISE-based ASIC per constellation, around 3,000 units would be delivered in the first five years after the project started. The final results of the project will be presented to end-users and the general public at a workshop scheduled for the second half of 2022.
How much do you invest in R&D?
For us, investment in new technologies is extremely important. The characteristics of the space sector require strong investment in R&D and top skills. The sector and clients demand more advanced solutions, and we compete with international companies. When we sell a product in Japan, the USA, or South Korea, we are competing with the local industry in those countries. These are top companies within their markets and across the world. Therefore, R&D investment is essential for us to remain competitive. R&D activities represent up to 12% of our sales volume. In addition to our self-funded R&D investment, we have great confidence in the Spanish administration. The space sector is strategic in Spain, and the government has always supported the national industry, which is an strategic sector.