The scientific, technological, and manufacturing capabilities of the European Union satellite communications industry were impressively strong in 1992 and remain so in 1997/98. Like their U.S. counterparts, European companies are consolidating into a smaller number of larger but more streamlined organizations with major emphasis on the bottom line.
In 1992 the panel was impressed with the EU's systematic approach to research and development through large flight programs managed or coordinated by ESA. European industry could count on a series of experimental spacecraft that would take a technology like L-band mobile communications from proof of concept tests through early commercial service. Since 1992 the world market has changed drastically, and what may be the last spacecraft (ARTEMIS) in the distinguished line of European research satellites is now under construction for launch in 2000. Reflecting the market changes, ESTEC has developed a remarkable flexibility in working with member states and industry to accomplish R&D in a timely manner. The goal is to develop satellite technologies and applications that will help European industry compete in the world market. A multiplicity of small ESA programs is replacing efforts centered in large spacecraft.
When the 1992/1993 WTEC panel conducted its site visits, European hosts were generally skeptical about low earth orbit (LEO) systems like Iridium and Globalstar. Some of this skepticism extended to proposed geosynchronous earth orbit (GEO)-based systems as well. In 1997 the European attitude had changed completely, and EU companies now manufacture satellites for Globalstar and aggressively pursue a variety of systems for providing satellite service to hand-held terminals.
The European satellite industry is quite competitive and will remain so. As with the rest of the world, emphasis has shifted from large, one-at-a-time satellite systems to multi-satellite constellations and production-line manufacturing. R&D efforts focus on particular technologies like optical intersatellite links (ISLs) and on new services like on-board multiplexing of digital TV transmissions.
European industry is quite competitive in almost all aspects of current satellite technology. For future applications, the strong European programs in optical ISLs that the 1992 panel noted continue in 1997. The ISL program combines both ESA and national efforts, with ESA focusing on data relay satellites and terminal development and national efforts focusing on terminals. SILEX LEO and GEO flight models will be launched in 1998 (SPOT-4) and 2000 (ARTEMIS). Oerlikon-Contraves was scheduled to complete breadboard models for high data rate (greater than one gigabit) 6,000 km range LEO-LEO terminals in mid 1998.
Developing a European version of global positioning system (GPS) is a clear research priority. So far European efforts have concentrated on enhancements to GPS to achieve the positioning accuracies needed by commercial aviation. This effort includes demonstrations. A direct GPS replacement is in the talking stage, however, nobody believes that the funding for such an endeavor will be found in the next several years. European industry representatives are acutely aware that they have missed the boat on the GPS ground receiver business.
The French national program to build and launch (in 2000) the STENTOR spacecraft is perhaps the only new large European experimental communications satellite program since the 1992/1993 report. Like ACTS, STENTOR demonstrates both technology (transponders and antennas) and applications (onboard multiplexing of digital TV channels). The spacecraft will carry both very wideband transponders based on monolithic microwave integrated circuit (MMIC) technology and selectable bandwidth transponders incorporating SAW filters. Its antennas include both a direct radiating phased array (48 subarrays, each with its own PA, and 3 independent beams) and an ultra-lightweight 2.4 m deployable reflector.
The inherent global coverage of LEO systems and the many proposals for satellite based multimedia service, together make spectrum a divisive issue between competing U.S. and European satellite builders and operators.
Many of the U.S. plans for future satellite services are based on projections for continued growth of the Internet and for need of new Internet-like services. The rise of the nearly free-for-all Internet in the United States is somewhat foreign to the European sense of order and standards, and some of the controversy about an International Telecommunication Union (ITU) role in regulating the Internet may affect the satellite industry
The EU is very much a part of the transition of satellite manufacturing from a one-of-a-kind process to an automobile-industry-like assembly line. Alenia Spazio, for example, has built a state-of-the-art facility for integrating and testing the Globalstar spacecraft. This facility and the experience gained will put Alenia in a strong competitive position for building other LEO constellations.
The continued consolidation of the European aerospace industry across national borders has re-energized a number of companies. The panel noted a feeling of excitement that was absent in 1992/1993.