SPACEBUS NEO Copyright Thales Alenia Space

Today, ESA astronaut Tim Peake opened a UK facility that will expand Europe’s capability with satellites that rely wholly on electric propulsion.

Sited in Belfast, Northern Ireland, it builds on the advanced manufacturing skills there. Propellant tanks, electric thrusters and steering mechanisms with the interconnecting harness and fuel lines will be assembled and installed on the satellite structure.

In the future, the thruster steering assembly will also be built in the same cleanroom, which will expand to 500 sq m by the end of the year.

These complete propulsion modules will then be sent to Thales Alenia Space France in Cannes for insertion into the Spacebus Neo satellites, which will offer all-electric propulsion or a mix of electric and traditional thrusters.

Three have already been ordered – the first, for Eutelsat, will provide broadband communications across sub-Saharan Africa from 2019.

This effort is part of ESA’s Neosat programme, which intends to reduce the cost of a 3–6 tonne satellite in orbit by 30% by the end of the decade.

Magali Vaissiere, ESA Director of Telecommunications and Integrated Applications, commented: “Neosat aims to help European satellite builders to capture at least half of the world’s satcom market in the years to come.

“The opening of this dedicated facility in Belfast is an important milestone in the electric propulsion revolution.”

Thales Alenia Space UK’s dedicated Electric Propulsion Integration Centre is the first of its kind in the UK.

Spacebus Neo will offer all-electric propulsion to reach its final orbit and maintain its position using significantly less propellant than traditional thrusters – meaning lower cost or greater capacity at launch. Thales plans to build up to four per year from 2018.

Apart from Neosat, the design, manufacture and test facilities will also support other satellite programmes that use chemical and electric propulsion.

Tim Peake opened the facility on his postflight tour of the UK, in the presence of Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s First Minister, with representatives from ESA, the UK Space Agency and NASA.

The Neosat cooperation between ESA and France’s CNES space agency is part of ESA’s Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems programme.