French defence technology business Thales is preparing to hit the acquisition trail, setting the UK space sector firmly in its sights.

Thales UK chief executive Alex Dorrian says: "We're now in a position to make some substantial acquisitions. Given we have a big space capability in Europe and none in the UK, it's an obvious thing to look at."

He says the formation of Thales Alenia Space in April - a joint venture between Thales (67%) and Finmeccanica (33%) together with Telespazio - has made Thales the leading European business for satellite systems in both civil and defence sectors.

"We want to take advantage of that enormous presence," he says, adding that Thales is intent on pursuing closer collaboration with the UK space sector to help it boost the return on its investment in the European Space Agency to which it is a net contributor. "Thales is interested in sharing its expertise here," Dorrian says.

As for potential strategic acquisitions, Dorrian adds: "The UK is a pretty good microcosm of our whole group [apart from space], so we are more likely to acquire areas of technology to boost our global capability than signing a mega deal. We are at the same time in a position to sign a major deal."

He says potential targets in the space sector remain important within Thales's acquisition strategy together with security and defence business acquisitions, although he warns that these will have to be the right target "both in strategic terms and in terms of affordability".

"There are not so many big companies out there, so we would likely target smaller technology-based businesses," says Dorrian, adding that businesses in the USA and other countries were also on Thales's radar. "But that really is up to individual country teams within Thales to come up with a business case that makes sense," he says.

Victor Chavez, Thales UK vice-president sales and marketing, plays down any suggestion of an indiscriminate buying spree, saying collaborative ventures could be pursued at a variety of different levels. He cites UK business Surrey Satellites - formed in 1985 by the University of Surrey to commercialise its satellite engineering research - as an example of an ideal collaborative partner within the space sector.

"Our strategy in space may not actually be an acquisition - perhaps a partnership. We remain very open-minded about that. Acquisition may not be the best way to proceed," Chavez says.

  • Thales Alenia Space is set to start shipping Giove-B - the second test Galileo satellite - from its plant in Rome to ESA-ESTEC's Dutch facility for further tests before being sent to the Baikonur cosmodrome to start year-end launch preparations. The production team, led by prime contractor Thales Alenia Space and including Telespazio, EADS Astrium and ESA, has completed all preliminary tests, including the thermal-vacuum test that duplicates the satellite's in-orbit environment.

Source: Flight International