Italy's Alenia Aerospazio has turned satellite manufacturing on its head at its new Centro Piccoli Satelliti (Small Satellite Centre) in Tiburtina, Rome. In a conventional production centre, satellites are generally built at a central point, with teams of different engineers coming and going, adding new components as they are manufactured. At the Tiburtina centre it is different.

"We have been provocative," says Antonio Rodota, chief of Alenia's Space division. In some ways the centre resembles a car-factory operation, where the satellite is moved across the floor to enter specific assembly and testing zones, called "technology islands", which pool similar specialities in a computer-controlled production sequence.

The integration, assembly and testing centre has been built on the site of a former missile factory, and was opened on 30 January. The manufacture of the first Globalstar mobile communications satellite is now being completed for the Loral Space and Communications/Qualcomm partnership. The first satellite has passed its "fit" check with a payload fairing for the Delta 2 launcher, which it is hoped will launch the first four satellites in August.

Finmeccanica, Alenia's holding company, has invested L50 billion ($35 million) in the 6,000m2 (65,000ft2) "clean-room" centre, which Alenia claims to be the "first for high-rate satellite production", designed for the mass production of spacecraft, including all testing under one roof. Instead of standing still, the satellites make "a voyage through the plant", says Rodota.

The investment in the manufacturing centre for 200-1,000kg-class spacecraft has more than paid off, with a $200 million contract to integrate, assemble and test 48 operational and eight back-up Globalstars, and 112 antenna systems. These will be built at a rate of four satellites and eight communications antennas a month, using components built largely by Aerospatiale, Alcatel and Deutsche Aerospace. The contract also includes preparation of the craft at the launch base. The Deltas will be flown from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and other Globalstars will be launched by Soyuz and Zenit boosters from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Alenia's new centre has two production lines for spacecraft and antennas, each made up of eight independent production islands. These include test areas, such as the near-field test range for antennas, a thermal chamber, and a vibration-testing chamber. The flexibility of the production system "-allows satellites of the same type, but with different payloads, to be assembled simultaneously", Rodota says.

Up to ten Globalstar satellites at a time can be in various stages of assembly. Alenia hopes that the centre will eventually to be able to produce one satellite a week. The company, which cannot necessarily rely on follow-on Globalstars, believes that the new centre will enable it to capitalise on the predicted market for more than 1,300 small-class satellites being proposed by mobile-communications satellite companies.

This figure, however, does include more than 900 satellites proposed by Teledesic, the US Microsoft-financed mobile telecommuications project, which will not necessarily proceed, leaving the more realistic estimate at about 400 spacecraft. Other business may come from remote-sensing, military and science-spacecraft market sectors and may include follow-on global-positioning satellites, says Rodota. The centre gives Alenia "a three-year start over the competition", he says.


Additional programmes

Another potential manufacturing project is the Cosmo/Skymed. The Italian Government has allocated $40 million funding for Alenia to begin the development of this proposed remote-sensing satellite system to monitor and manage the ecology and environment of the Mediterranean region.

The system is the result of a study ordered by the European Union, which hopes to pursue the project. It has so far won the support of Greece and Spain, and further investment is being invited from other countries in the region. The system would provide continuous monitoring of pollution, coastal erosion and other environmental phenomena. Alenia has invested in a design programme which has resulted in a system proposal of seven satellites in low-Earth orbits, with a low-orbital inclination, to ensure regular coverage of regions in the 30-40¹ latitudes, which includes the Mediterranean.

Source: Flight International