Directorate-General for Research & Innovation logo Horizon: the EU Research & Innovation magazine | European Commission logo
Receive our editor’s picks

Europe launches biggest telecoms satellite

When stood on its end, Alphasat is 7.1 metres high. From tip to tip, its solar panels are 40 metres across. © Stephane Corvaja/ESA
When stood on its end, Alphasat is 7.1 metres high. From tip to tip, its solar panels are 40 metres across. © Stephane Corvaja/ESA

Europe has launched its biggest-ever telecoms satellite, and it includes some of the most sophisticated technology ever used for civilian purposes.

Alphasat lifted off on an Ariane 5 launcher from French Guiana on 25 July. At 6.6 tons, it is 0.1 tons heavier than the previous record holder, Inmarsat-4 F3, and it owes much of its superiority to Alphabus - the sleek skyborne vessel within which the satellite is integrated.

Alphabus is the most powerful communications satellite platform available, according its builders EADS Astrium and Thales Alenia Space, who were supported by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the French space agency CNES. It responds to the need to send up larger satellites with powerful communication payloads to support direct broadcasting of TV and digital radio, as well as broadband and mobile services.

With its plasma propulsion system, heat-dissipating architecture, and a 40-metre-wide array of solar panels, it cuts down on fuel and cooling systems and frees up space for telecommunication instruments.

‘The size of its payload allows it to carry more equipment, helping it compete with satellites from the United States,’ said Rupert Pearce, Chief Executive of Inmarsat, the British telecommunications firm that owns and operates the satellite. 

The unique data processing power on board the Alphabus platform means that Alphasat will offer unprecedented mobile phone connectivity across developing regions.

‘Today, economic growth is closely linked with access to telecommunication networks,’ said Pearce. ‘Alphasat can dispatch communications and financial transactions for banks and retailers in remote locations electronically without the need for expensive terrestrial networks.’

‘Alphasat can dispatch communications and financial transactions for banks and retailers in remote locations electronically without the need for expensive terrestrial networks.’

Rupert Pearce, Chief Executive, Inmarsat

The satellite itself, which was made by EADS Astrium with support from ESA, will assist Inmarsat in expanding its global broadband Internet network by beefing up the three geostationary satellites it already uses to provide broadband coverage.

Remote users can access the network, known as Broadband Global Area Network services, to connect to the Internet wherever they are - all they need is a specially designed portable electronic terminal no bigger than a briefcase.

Systems running

Alphabus has successfully deployed its vast array of solar panels, which measure 40 metres from tip to tip. Its innovative subsystems are operational and its temperature is under control. The satellite has already revolved around the planet’s axis and emerged from Earth’s shadow with all systems running.

Alphasat hosts four technology demonstration payloads designed by European companies and research institutions for exploratory science. The instruments include a radiation sensor, from Portuguese company Efacec, that will improve understanding of the harsh conditions faced by satellites in geostationary orbit.

Another experiment, by Thales Alenia and Space Engineering in Italy, will investigate electromagnetic interactions with the Earth's atmosphere with a view to extending the range of wavelengths available for telecommunications. The German company, Jena-Optronik, has developed a star tracker to assist in guiding satellites along their orbit. And the German Aerospace Center (DLR) has provided a laser communication terminal to test a faster approach to transferring data.

Rupert Pearce, Chief Executive, Inmarsat.Rupert Pearce, Chief Executive, Inmarsat.

The EUR 600 million project has been supported by regional development agencies in the UK, the British National Space Centre, and the Risk-sharing Finance Facility created by the European Commission and the European Investment Bank.

‘Alphasat epitomises what European cooperation can achieve in space technology at its best,’ said Michel Roux, Satellite Programme Manager at EADS-Astrium, which was involved with building the Alphabus platform. ‘It is a premium satellite,’ agreed Nathalie Smirnov, Director of Telecommunications at Thales Alenia Space, ‘it incorporates innovations that reflect the world-class telecommunications expertise of European industry.’

Video courtesy of ESA.

More info