The multimillion-dollar Spanish quantum satellites that could stay on Earth

Sentinel 2 pillars

After devoting the first week of the year to covering the most eye-catching contract of those contemplated in the Aerospace PERTE, it is now the turn of the one with the largest budget. The development of satellites that distribute quantum keys is a requirement for the future of cybersecurity, but it is a technology that is not widely used. Probably the best idea of those financed by the covid funds The European-wide space sector would require a great deal of capacity building in the national territory.

SEOSAT Ingenio ready for shipment pillars
Image of the last public Spanish satellite launched into space, SEOSAT, which was lost in the failed launch of a Vega rocket. Source: ESA

Two multi-million dollar contracts

That space is expensive is no surprise to anyone; even the cheapest satellites cost around half a million euros. Nor does it surprise anyone that investment in R&D is never affordable, and even less so in revolutionary technologies such as quantum technologies. And therein lies the problem with this contract: it wants to cover too much with a budget that is, as it turns out, limited.

However, the fact that the Thales group has been the winner of a project at European level could make the investment very profitable. 

But the contracts are complex, the one with the most money has already been awarded de facto to Thales Alenia Space España. For 103.5 million euros, unfortunately and for the first time in PERTE, it will not face competition in a second phase. Hence the express statement that the award is de facto, it would be a surprise if Phase II were cancelled. They will have to build a quantum key distribution system for a satellite in geostationary orbit. But also two complete ground segments for orbiter operation.

spainsat ng shipping scaled
Image of the shipment of the next civil and military communications satellite, the Spainsat NG to Toulouse to complete its construction by Thales Alenia Espacio. Source: Thales Alenia Espacio Spain

Low orbit satellite

Fortunately, in the other contract tendered, worth 19 million, there are two companies participating. Surprisingly, Thales Alenia, the company awarded the first contract, is not one of them. It did not even submit a bid, leaving a clearer path for the leading company in Phase I, Sener. This Spanish multinational company scored quite well in the technical part with a remarkable 61 out of a possible 80. In addition, the competitor scores poorly, exceeding the twenty-five point threshold for the solution by just three points. In total, it scored only 41 out of 80.

Sener is being particularly active in the aerospace PRTR with participation in all the projects presented so far. Including the micro-launcher, which they collaborate with Pangea Aerospace in its launcher proposal with an aerospike engine in the first stage.

Quantum satellites that are not satellites

The most flaky part of both contracts is the fact that no key points for converting them into operational systems are covered. The 150 million euros of both contracts only pay for the development of what are called mission modules. For these mission modules to serve their purpose they must first be installed on a satellite bus. And that's hopefully, if the designs cannot be adapted to existing, mass-produced satellite designs, the cost will skyrocket.

On the other hand, and assuming that it is integrated into a satellite, a matter that could be addressed within the national scope. There is the capacity to manufacture complete satellites in Spain, what is not possible is to launch it from the national territory. And neither the Miura 5 nor the Meso will be able to lift a satellite to geostationary orbit, although it may be possible to launch a low orbit satellite. 

In a project with many lights and almost as many shadows, it is important to highlight one fact. Spain has an enormous aerospace industry, capable of facing world-class challenges, and the Government is right to support it. As we have seen this morning, this has allowed PLD Space to bid for launch contracts from European institutions. Or very recently Thales Alenia taking charge of a European megaproject. Perhaps without the previous development carried out for the Center for Technological and Industrial Development it would not have been possible.

Martin Morala Andres