Interview: Nicolas Chamussy, executive vice president, Space Systems, Airbus Group
Nicolas Chamussy was named head of Airbus’s Space Systems division in March 2016 after being chief of staff for Airbus Chief Executive Tom Enders for nearly four years. He has held various management positions inside Airbus Defence and Space, and began his career as a space systems engineer at the U.S. Air Force’s Phillips Laboratory.
In an interview with Peter B. de Selding, Chamussy discusses Airbus’s decision to invest heavily in commercial Earth observation — without government backing. He also outlines a possible future for Airbus’s partnership with satellite internet provider OneWeb, whether Europe is ready for a united European milsatcom effort and the company’s initial reaction to the European Space Agency’s ministerial conference on space policy.
Space Intel Report: Airbus is investing in a constellation of four high-resolution optical Earth observation satellites. This comes after a 300-million-euro investment in the Spot 6 and Spot 7 satellites. All this with no government support and no guarantee of a market. Why?
Nicolas Chamussy: This is part of a wider policy. You know that we in industry agreed to co-finance part of the Ariane 6 rocket’s development. It’s a strong sign from the top management of Airbus and Safran that we want to control our own fate — otherwise, we would not have done it. Of course there are conditions we set according to our assessment of the market.
So the launchers is the first. The second is OneWeb, the constellation of around 700 low-orbiting satellites for worldwide internet delivery.
The third is the constellation of four very-high-resolution satellites. This is absolutely market-driven. It’s a sign that the Airbus board believes in this market first of all, and secondly a believe that our Space Systems division knows how to do this, and that we can trust them to do it.
It’s a signal that the Airbus group supports Space Systems development — a very good sign.
The point of this constellation is to back our Airbus Defence and Space’s Geo-Information Services business. We operate the [French government-financed] Pleiades A and B satellites, and we know these birds will be retired at some point.
We know we are not number one in this market. Number one is DigitalGlobe, without any doubt. But we believe in the market and we are not going to let it go. Thus the decision to invest in these four satellites to replace Pleiades. So it’s both market-driven and a strong sign from the Airbus Group of its support for space activities.
To my knowledge, Airbus is the only company making such substantial investments with no government backing, either as co-investor or an anchor tenant. Isn’t the risk profile higher?
Yes it is — big-time. We have no commitment from anyone. We are basing the investment on our understanding of customer needs and our ability to fulfill these needs. The target launch date is 2020.
The ground resolution of these satellites is around 30 centimeters at nadir?
We are not commenting on a specific ground resolution beyond calling it very high. You can conclude on your own what that means. We are competing against DigitalGlobe, so that tells you something.
There’s DigitalGlobe, but also ImageSat of Israel, and South Korea’s, and others. It’s a crowded market.
Let’s be clear: Here we are talking about imaging services, not the export of satellite systems. Also, while it’s true the Israelis and the South Koreans are selling images on the market, our competitor really is DigitalGlobe.
Lots of new companies, especially in the United States, are investing in lower-resolution constellations for improved temporal resolution. DigitalGlobe is investing in one with the Saudi government. What are Airbus’s thoughts here?
We are of course looking at this market development to improve revisit time. For now we have made no decision on our own investment. For this four-satellite constellation the focus is ground resolution, but we are also looking at delivering more near-real-time coverage.
We do have the OneWeb platform, being developed at full speed. The platform is not as suited for high-resolution systems because it does not have the same stability as what’s needed for high resolution. But it could be a platform for a constellation focused on revisit time instead of very high resolution.
How do you assess the Dec. 2 European Space Agency council meeting, which resulted in 10.3 billion euros ($11 billion) in new program commitments?
I have not yet reviewed each program in detail. This will take some time. But as an initial comment, the first good outcome is that the launcher issue was not discussed — or more precisely, had been decided before the conference. Otherwise it could have been have taken over the whole conference.
In the volume of investment, it was a good result.
I was also surprised, positively, by the ARTES [telecommunications research] subscriptions by both France and Britain. If you look at the French commitment it was around 200 million euros, and for the UK, you have 170 on Core Competitiveness and then 60 on IAP. UK is clearly the biggest subscriber to the ARTES program.
We see this is as very positive.
The UK effort during the conference is a key point for us — not only on the program contributions but on their determination to compensate for the decline in the UK pound’s value relative to the euro — definitely a good sign.
The Earth Observation Envelope Program, EOEP-5, came up a bit short.
It was subscribed at a level of about 82 percent. This is not bad.
ESA’s science program will have to live with zero growth, and possibly a decline, given that part of its budget will be directed to the ExoMars 2020 rover mission.
I think it’s generally agreed that the science budget is good, but let’s say not an extraordinarily high subscription level, especially given that a chunk of it is dedicated to to ExoMars. Perhaps an additional effort could be made at the next council meeting on science.
The extra funding for ExoMars was about 440 million. It’s a big amount. Our specific interest here is the rover, which we are developing. But the total financing required for ExoMars has a big impact on other programs.
Having said that, it was necessary to continue ExoMars despite the fact that this created a crunch on the money available for other programs.
Science gets a 1 percent per year increase with no accounting for inflation.
A 1 percent increase, plus they need to spent 100 million on ExoMars, which is, let’s say, not an exciting prospect for the science program. I hope something can be done next time to get more resources for science missions.
This conference will in fact will be remembered as the one where ExoMars was finally decided. There were no other emblematic programs this time, such as the Ariane 5 or Ariane 6 launchers, the international space station and so on. ExoMars was the highlight.
The Airbus-led European Data Relay Satellite system, using optical links between low-orbiting Earth observation satellites and nodes on geostationary-orbit telecommunications satellites, did not get the desired funding.
The GlobeNet proposal on the table for the ministers was significantly undersubscribed. Canada is the biggest contributor to GlobeNet coming out of the conference.
You know the importance of GlobeNet for us. So we would welcome an increased effort on GlobeNet in the coming years, no doubt about it. Germany was near zero on this if I understand the results. But Germany is a big direct contributor to EDRS and GlobeNet through the laser optical terminals, which allowed us to develop them on the EDRS-A node and to prepare for the two future nodes in geostationary orbit.
For now, the main contributors to the GlobeNet program proposed to the ministerial are the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Romania, Great Britain and Canada. It’s true this is not the configuration of national contributors that we were expecting. It’s a small amount in total, something like 7 million over three years.
[Editor's note: Airbus subsequently said the lack of support for GlobeNet would not affect the company’s expansion of the EDRS program over the Pacific, with a planned laser-optical terminal on a yet-unidentified geostationary satellite].
ESA and the European Commission are promoting a system called GovSatCom, a pan-European military satellite telecommunications program. Europe does not have a good track record here. Your thoughts?
It’s true that in the past there were several initiatives — Eumilsatcom, Trimilsatcom and others — that did not end up in a joint procurement. At the end of the day, each of the major space countries in Europe — Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Spain — built their own systems.
I don’t know if the timing is right now. But the fact that the European Commission published its Space Strategy document is definitely a positive step. It’s not overly detailed, it’s not thousands of pages. It outlines what could be a joint effort. This in itself is good.
Outlining in a document like this that there is a need for shared services or shared resources for governmental security and satellite communications is a good sign in these complicated times for the European Commission.
Will there be a buy-in by the nations? That will be up to them. The exact form of GovSatCom still has to be worked out. Will it be pooling and sharing of existing resources? Will it be a dedicated system? I don’t know. It’s too early to say.
ESA is running preliminary studies with the European Commission. This is the normal way to proceed. I can only applaud the fact that the commission and some nations feel the need to look at a coordinated system.
You are a joint-venture partner in OneWeb Satellites, which is building a factory in Florida. OneWeb recently raised $1.2 billion in equity in addition to the $500 million raised in 2015. Does the overall business model depend on finding customers beyond OneWeb for this factory?
We are starting construction of the satellite assembly line in Florida. But keep in mind nevertheless that we have a first integration line in Toulouse, our own facility, to build the first pilot OneWeb satellites.
We are now integrating the first components there and we are at full speed. Integration of the first satellite is scheduled for the next few months, and we are on schedule.
Now, it’s absolutely clear that the business case, the rationale for this, lies beyond the first 10 OneWeb satellites to be produced in Toulouse. These capabilities will be available to third parties. For U.S. government national security customers this would be done by U.S. nationals. We are pushing for this. We have a design and we will have an integrated production line in Europe and another in the U.S., operated by U.S. nationals only and available for classified applications.
So the idea is to retain your Toulouse production line beyond the first 10 OneWeb satellites?
The production line will be there, and available, beyond the first 10 satellites, especially for third parties. A U.S. government third party customer will be handled only by U.S. nationals.
Peter B. de Selding