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4G at the North Pole.

Thales Alenia Space manufactures next-generation telecommunications satellites in Cannes. From there the forwarder, Daher, and Lufthansa Cargo transport the high-tech objects to America. During a “planet” ­on-site visit, Alexis von Hoensbroech, Board Member Product and Sales at Lufthansa Cargo, took a very close look.

Alexis von Hoensbroech was impressed by what Denis Allard (l.), Vice President of the Iridium NEXT project at Thales Alenia Space, explained to him and by the size of the satellites.

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Whether it’s for an Antarctic expedition, on board a ship in polar seas or on a plane flying over remote regions – one thing is an absolute must-have in this day and age: the satellite phone. Four suppliers have established themselves in this market segment, and one of the leading companies is Iridium Communications Inc. First launched in 1998 as Motorola subsidiary Iridium SSC, the Iridium network was envisioned exclusively as an telephony enterprise.

However, as circumstances changed and technology evolved, Iridium, now an independent company, recognized an opportunity to ‘reboot’ its network into a unique voice and data satellite services provider. Today, Iridium is both publicly traded on the Nasdaq and boasts hundreds of thousands of subscribers supporting maritime, aviation, machine-to-machine and terrestrial activities. With the experience of industry veterans and the drive of Space 2.0 visionaries, Iridium has established itself as a major player in the mobile satellite services arena, and the future is looking even brighter.

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The name of that future is Iridium NEXT, which will be the world’s biggest low-Earth orbit constellation of telecommunications satellites. Comprised of 66 satellites divided across six orbital planes, Iridium NEXT will replace the previous system and add new mobile service functionalities.

Iridium has commissioned a total of 81 satellites: the 66 that form the network, six back-up satellites that are in orbit and nine further reserves on the ground. The manufacturer, Thales Alenia Space from southern France is headquartered on the French Riviera, not far from the city center of Cannes. From the outside, Thales Alenia Space maintains a humble appearance, making it hard to imagine that they are home to the creation of such sophisticated technology.

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Top logistics for a punctual delivery.

A look inside the clean room, the company’s manufacturing facility, tells of many exciting stories: of satellites built for the exploration of Mars, of solar probes as long as a small aircraft, and of spacecraft created specifically to expand and maintain telecommunications on our planet. Nicolas Poggioli is Head of Production for Iridium satellites at Thales Alenia Space. Today, he provides insight into his work and has a particularly fascinated guest: Alexis von Hoensbroech, Board Member Product and Sales at Lufthansa Cargo.

Two mighty containers stand ready in the 15,000-square-meter clean room for the safe transport of the next two Iridium satellites as airfreight to Gilbert, Arizona. The forwarder, Daher, takes on the haulage while Lufthansa Cargo is the implementing airline company. While clearly interested in the financial side of the operation, Alexis von Hoensbroech also has a very personal and scientifically motivated interest. As a doctor of astrophysics, his visit is a childhood dream come true: “To see a real satellite up close.”

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There are more than enough of them at the Thales Alenia Space manufacturing facility. Satellites for navigation – Thales played a defining role in the construction of the GALILEO satellite navigation –, satellites for the observation of weather data and for scientific purposes. And last but not least: satellites for telecommunications. ­Currently the first two Iridium NEXT satellites will be transported into orbit and initially integrated into the existing Iridium system. A few months later, traveling on board SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets, the remaining 70 satellites will then successively be sent into orbit – ten at a time. If everything goes according to plan, the project will be completed in 2017. All 72 satellites will then be in their orbits and ensuring internet and telecommunications access even from the most remote places in the world.

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For Thales Alenia Space and its service providers this ambitious plan means one thing above all else: top performance in terms of production engineering and logistics. “Up until the end of 2015 we manufactured one satellite service module per month, three per month since the beginning of 2016 and, as from summer, the figure will increase to five in order to meet the tight deadline,” explains Poggioli. On average, one satellite per week has to be transported from Cannes via Frankfurt to Gilbert, where the final integration and tests of the satellites are performed within Orbital ATK facilities.

For transportation Thales Alenia Space has manufactured its own oversize cool containers. Its mega dimensions: 450 centimeters long, 244 centimeters wide and 230 centimeters tall. Special refrigerated trucks are required to ensure the containers are undamaged during transport to Frankfurt. From there the journey continues with Lufthansa Cargo to Los Angeles, where yet another specially built truck moves the goods to Arizona. This then raises an interesting question: do satellites have to be cooled?

“A classic misunderstanding,” says Francis Couillault with a laugh. The 56-year-old is Executive Operations Manager at the logistics service provider Daher – and thus responsible for the supply chain. “Rather, what this sensitive object requires is temperature-controlled transport, which means that a certain temperature range needs to be maintained throughout the entire journey.” Other requirements for the customized containers: shock sensitivity and the neutralization of further external factors such as, for example, contamination. 

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Fast response, efficieny and quality are success factors.

“The comprehensive experience that Lufthansa Cargo offers for the transport of temperature-controlled goods, along with its in-house Cool Center in Frankfurt, makes Lufthansa Cargo the perfect transport partner for us,” ­explains Couillault. For Denis Allard, Vice President of the Iridium NEXT project at Thales Alenia Space, it was important to know which airline his satellites were flying with: “It is essential for us to be able to keep track of how the airline is handling our sensitive items of cargo. The partnership between Daher and Lufthansa Cargo convinced us, as, in addition to punctuality and quality, we attach great importance to fast response, flexibility, efficiency and professionalism.”

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Prior to contract signing, salesperson Philippe Bourry from Lufthansa Cargo had already assured that the cargo airline can achieve this – and long since proven it too with the colleagues of the Cool Team in Frankfurt. “Nonetheless, a direct insight into production creates a fundamental understanding that is often missing during discussions,” says the 48-year-old. Alexis von Hoensbroech agrees: “The personal exchange with the final customers is an asset. This way we can specifically further develop ourselves and our processes and product offerings and, wherever required, adapt them quickly and precisely.”

Thales Alenia Space is a central player in the exploration of our universe. As a European market leader in the field of satellite navigation Thales Alenia Space plays a key role in the devel­opment of the very latest tech­nologies.

Dedication and the highest standards of quality. One thing became clear during my visit: every single person working on these satellites does so with the utmost dedication. The result is fantastic quality.

As someone who studied astrophysics, the dream of seeing a satellite at its “birth” has come true for me. It’s fascinating to know which added value the technologies of Thales generate for us all and how every human being benefits from this research – be it via weather data, navi­gation or telecommunication.



Bernhard Huber, Jürgen Mai

planet 01/2016