Italy faces decisions on SpaceX v. Soyuz, and geo-orbit radar with Russia
February 8, 2017
PARIS — The Italian and Russian space agencies have begun preliminary design work on a radar Earth observation satellite that would operate from geostationary orbit in what would be a first-ever civilian radar operated from that orbit.
Italian Space Agency (ASI) President Roberto Battiston said the joint Italian-Russian GeoSAR program, approved by both governments’ heads of state in mid-2016, would employ many of the technologies Italy has developed for its Cosmo-SkyMed civil/military radar satellite system.
Four first-generation Cosmo-SkyMed satellites are in orbit and two second-generation satellites are under construction by Thales Alenia Space. The first is scheduled for launch in 2018, with the second in 2019.
No 100% European option for 2018 Cosmo-SkyMed launch
In a Feb. 8 interview, Battiston said the Cosmo-SkyMed program is on schedule and that a decision on whether to use the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket or a Europeanized Russian Soyuz vehicle for the 2018 launch would be made within weeks.
The second of the two next-generation Cosmo-SkyMed satellites will be launched aboard the Italian-led Vega-C rocket, which is scheduled to debut operations from Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport in 2019.
Italy is one of several nations in Europe that have resisted pressure to launch all government satellites aboard European rockets. Battiston said Italy was largely in favor of such a Buy European launch-service policy, now being proposed for missions between 2021 and 2025.
But the Vega-C rocket, being funded by ESA with Italy the major contributor, will not be available until 2019, and until then the alternatives are either the Russian Soyuz rocket, operated from the European spaceport, or a more obviously non-European vehicle.
Battiston has visited SpaceX founder Elon Musk at SpaceX’s Hawthorne, California, headquarters and has made no secret of the appeal of the Falcon 9 rocket.
He conceded that SpaceX’s overcharged schedule “presents a challenge” for launches in the next two years, but said the bottlenecks are mainly for launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. For missions to low Earth orbit such as Cosmo-SkyMed, SpaceX launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, where there’s less of a backlog of customers.
Italian-Russian GeoSAR looking at civil/commercial applications
For GeoSAR, Battiston said, Russia and Italy have agreed on an approximately 50-50 division of labor, with the likely scenario being an Italian-built payload and a Russian satellite platform.
Whether GeoSAR would include one or two midsize satellites, and operate in X- or C-band, had not yet been decided, he said.
“A mission like this, in geostationary orbit, has been discussed at ESA [the 22-nation European Space Agency] for years but has never been selected,” Battiston said. “It’s a new mission idea to study terrain movement, agricultural applications and science. It employs tools we have developed for low Earth orbit and applies them to a mission whose ground resolution would be in the 10s of meters, perhaps 100 meters.”
The likely industrial participants are Thales Alenia Space, Telespazio and e-Geos of Italy and a Russian satellite platform builder, with a likely Russian launch. Battiston said it appears the mission could be done with a satellite platform that is no bigger than the Cosmo-SkyMed second-generation satellites, each of which is expected to weigh around 2,200 kilograms at launch.
Having a radar sensor permanently staring at a given region is likely to have commercial applications. “This is part of the plan — to stimulate [Italian and Russian] companies for commercial use,” Battiston said.
Peter B. de Selding