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ESA inks Meteosat contract, ending procurement turmoil

Posted: February 25, 2012

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The European Space Agency signed a nearly $1.8 billion contract Friday for six geostationary weather satellites, selecting Thales Alenia Space to lead an industry team building the next-generation spacecraft for launches beginning in 2017.

Artist's concept of the MTG satellite system's imaging (foreground) and sounding spacecraft. Credit: ESA/P. Carril
The agreement for the Meteosat Third Generation, or MTG, satellites will ensure continuous European weather observations through at least 2037, according to an ESA announcement.

The $3.2 billion MTG program is jointly managed by ESA and Eumetsat, the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites. Most of the project is funded by ESA, which pays for up-front development costs, while Eumetsat funds sustainment, ground systems and operations.

The satellites include four imaging platforms and two atmospheric sounding spacecraft stationed in geosynchronous orbit 22,300 miles above Earth's equator. The launch of the first imaging satellite, called MTG-I, is expected in 2017, followed by liftoff of a MTG-S sounding spacecraft in 2019, according to ESA.

The MTG system will launch at set intervals of every few years to keep track of weather over Europe and Africa for at least two decades.

The contract signing concludes a two-year political struggle over which European nations would receive the bulk of the work on the next-generation weather satellite program. France and Germany lead the European states contributing to the MTG system.

ESA originally picked the bid from France-based Thales in March 2010, opting for a lower-price contract that included significant contributions from OHB System AG of Bremen, Germany.

But Germany lobbied for a more extensive industrial role in the MTG program to match its funding contributions to the third-generation satellite network. The Thales-OHB bid beat out a proposal led by Germany's Astrium satellite production plants.

Germany won concessions before agreeing to the French-led contractor team. The infrared sounder instrument, which will fly on two MTG satellites to measure atmospheric water vapor and wind profiles, will be built by Kayser Threde in Munich.

OHB System is responsible for MTG's two sounding satellites. OHB will also supply the common satellite bus for all six MTG spacecraft, which will be three-axis stabilized. Earlier Meteosat satellites were drum-shaped spinners.

Thales Alenia Space is supplying the imaging instrument for four of the MTG satellites, and leading overall development of the imaging spacecraft.

Artist's concept of an MTG imaging satellite. Credit: ESA/P. Carril
The division of work between France and Germany challenged the implementation of ESA's geographic return rule, which states member states must receive industrial work commensurate with their budget contributions.

"ESA and Eumetsat issued a request for proposals for the development of the third-generation satellites, and Thales Alenia Space was able to propose industrial partnerships meeting ESA's geographical return rule, from both the qualitative and quantitative standpoints," a Thales Alenia Space press release said.

"I am very proud and very honored to sign the contract for the Meteosat Third Generation program here at ESA, along with Eumetsat, CNES and Meteo France, and our German partners OHB and KT, with whom we form the 'core team'," said Reynald Seznec, president and CEO of Thales Alenia Space.

"This contract is the culmination of a long industrial optimization approach, starting with the request for proposals," Seznec said in a press release. "We are now enthusiastically looking forward to this exciting challenge, and once again demonstrating the excellence of the European space industry by delivering our accustomed world-class performance in geostationary orbit meteorology."

According to the Thales statement, the preliminary design reviews for the MTG system, instruments and platform will be completed this year.

The four MTG imaging satellites will each carry a 16-channel camera to capture global snapshots every 10 minutes, with the ability to focus on local areas with greater resolution and faster image repeats. The imaging satellites will also feature lightning imagers and search-and-rescue payloads.

In addition to the infrared sounder, MTG's two sounding spacecraft will each carry an ultraviolet payload for Europe's Sentinel Earth observation program to analyze atmospheric chemistry and identify trace gases, according to ESA.

The MTG program continues a series of European weather satellites that began in 1977. Two Meteosat Second Generation, or MSG, satellites are now operating in space, with another MSG craft due for launch on an Ariane 5 rocket this summer.

A fourth MSG satellite will blast off as soon as 2014.

Thales Alenia Space has been prime contractor on all of Europe's Meteosat satellites.