“Thales Alenia Space is a satellite company. We are mainly involved in satellite designing and manufacturing. (…) As far as satellites are concerned we are covering absolutely all the segments of satellites: telecommunication, observation, science, exploration and navigation. In all of those segments we are the European leader and one of the leaders in the world with some competitors in the US” – says Jean-Loic Galle, Thales Alenia Space CEO, in an interview for Space24.pl.
Paweł Ziemnicki: In which segment of the market is your company the leader and what is the area that you would like most to develop?
Jean-Loic Galle: Thales Alenia Space is a satellite company. We are mainly involved in satellite designing and manufacturing. In other words we are not really a part of launch industry even if we supply some small parts to Arianegroup.
As far as satellites are concerned we are covering absolutely all the segments of satellites: telecommunication, observation, science, exploration and navigation. In all of those segments we are the European leader and one of the leaders in the world with some competitors in the US. In the navigation field for example we are providing the Galileo ground segment to the European Commission and also the EGNOS system. We are probably number two in the market of communication satellites. So this is the picture of today.
I would also like to add the fact that we are the world champion in constellations of satellites - telecommunication constellations. We have supplied three constellations so far, the last one being Iridium. We are launching satellites for them this year. It is a constellation of 66 satellites. Having just recently launched a new batch of them today we have 55 satellites in orbit working very well with a very big satisfaction of our customer.
So this is where we are today. If we look into the future what will probably be important is the new segment of what we call "on-orbit servicing"?
That is exactly what my second question is about. What is the future of on-orbit servicing and what are your company's plans about it?
We have a lot of plans that we have presented to the European Space Agency. We want to become the European tomorrow leader of this technology. It is the segment of the market that will probably increase drastically in the next decade. Obviously there is a problem of space debris removal. There is a lot of debris in different orbits and the situation will be even worse tomorrow. So we have to take care globally of this issue. And I hope that Europe, the European Commission and ESA, probably in cooperation with USA will take care very soon of this problem.
So we are working on robotic technologies in order to take care of this problem. But there are also other kinds of services that will be available tomorrow in space as far as satellites are concerned, including the refueling of satellites, repair of them, the change of payload, including the change of position of satellites. All these things will happen probably around 2025.
Afterwards there will be other things such as factories in space in order to produce big parts, big items for space stations and satellites. But it will happen a little bit later. But generally it is a very promising segment of space industry.
How about all-electric propulsion satellites? Is your company pursuing the trend to design and launch more all-electric propulsion satellites?
Yes, for sure. We have already developed a new product line that we called Spacebus Neo. We decided that this product line will be fully propelled by electricity and not traditional chemical thrusters.
So our new product will be totally electrically propelled. Today if we look at the market around 50% of the telecommunication satellites are no longer chemically propelled. Obviously the trend will increase during the next years. Clearly it will be a technology of propulsion for tomorrow. Moreover it will soon apply also to observation satellites.
You mentioned Thales engagement in science. In what missions is the company taking part in deep space - like for example the NextSTEP mission for the cislunar exploration?
We also have a very strong position in this field through our Italian subsidiary but also French subsidiary. We are participating in most scientific missions by ESA and the European Commission. We are targeting the next ones, without exceptions, including the project of Moon space station. But we are also covering many other missions.
Thales Alenia Space is also contributing to the development of ESA Space Rider, the European concept of the reusable spacecraft. What exactly are you preparing for this project?
We have very successfully made the first prototype which was called IXV. Its mission was a full success. Now we are working with ESA and the Italian Space Agency in order to continue this program under new name which is Space Rider.
ESA is preparing the ministerial conference in 2019. We are pushing in order to make ESA put budget with some member states including Italy on this program. It would allow to build a new vehicle. We think that this vehicle will be very important for in orbit servicing. Such vehicle is needed for this new segment. So we are hoping that this project will be launched in the next two years and we will work in cooperation with Avio company in order to build this vehicle.
Thales is also working on pseudo satellites (HAPS) - platforms like Stratobus. Are you not afraid that if it succeeds it will consume some of your satellite market?
I guess the future of the Stratobus will be brilliant. We are in the middle of the development of this platform. The first trial launch of Stratobus is going to take place at the end of next year. It will really be a breakthrough because we will be the first one to implement such an object into the market. It will be used for different kinds of missions like telecommunication and Earth observation. It is a very flexible vehicle on which you can change the payload whenever you want and especially every year when you bring the Stratobus back to the Earth.
We strongly believe in this project and a lot of countries have already come to us in order to buy Stratobus. I am not afraid of the cannibalization of some part of satellite market by Stratobus. You know it is similar to so called war between GEO satellites and LEO satellites. Some might say that LEO satellites may someday kill the geostationary satellites. I do not think so.
Those products - GEO satellites, LEO satellites, Stratobus and drones - are so different in terms of capability and in terms of performance that you cannot compare them. I see them more as complementary objects in a system providing the customer with different data and different information rather than competitors.
When you compare the performance of the payloads of Stratobus and a GEO satellite you realize that the power of the payload mounted on Stratobus it will be 10 times less than on the big GEO communication satellite. Stratobus cannot then easily replace such satellite. Generally speaking, the constellation of satellites is something global whereas Stratobus is used for local purposes – to observe for example 200 km X 200 km square, so it is totally different in terms of applications, customer's needs and performance. You cannot compare the satellite with HAPS as you cannot compare drones with the satellites although drones can also make pictures for you.
In my opinion both civilian and military customers will soon use data gained by all those platforms. The merged data will provide the customer with the best information. So we do not have to oppose those things. They are totally complementary.
You are starting cooperation with the Polish company SCNTPL. How can it boost the progress of the Polish space industry and support your activities in Poland?
On the one hand Thales Alenia Space is a worldwide leader in satellite industry with more than 40 years of history, so with huge knowledge about space. On the other hand the Polish companies are just staring to work in this area. They have a lot of technological expertise but mainly in other fields. I really think that Polish companies need this kind of partnership if they want to accelerate very quickly. If not, it will be a little bit more difficult for them to be in the position to master satellite manufacturing in a very short term.
So I think this partnership could benefit to the Polish side in order to move further and quickly in the space playing field. At the same time it will benefit to Thales Alenia Space also for different reasons. Firstly, because Poland has decided to be a strong stakeholder at ESA. So it means, that we, as a prime contractor, need to have a Polish partner to work on ESA programs. So building this partnership and having good relationships with Polish partners will help us progress on ESA contracts.
On the other side we are delighted to develop our partnership in Poland: we appreciate in particular the expertise, especially in the mechanical field, combined with the competitiveness of the Polish industry and its value chain.
Jean-Loïc Galle graduated from Ecole Centrale in Paris and obtained an MBA from INSEAD. In 1999, he became the CEO of the Military Avionics Business Line at Thales Avionics. Between 2003-2007 he was the president of Thales Raytheon Systems France. In 2007, he managed Surface Radars as part of the air systems department in the Thales Group. He was promoted to the senior vice president of operations in February 2010 and became a member of the Executive Committee of the group. From September 2012 Jean-Loïc Galle is the Chief Executive Officer of Thales Alenia Space.