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Technologies of the future

At the forefront of future space technologies

Technologies of the future

At the forefront of future space technologies

Image of an astronaut on the Earth

In today’s fiercely competitive satellite industry, you have to manufacture “more and faster”. Emerging technologies have become inescapable in the drive to raise satellite production rates and perform new missions to keep pace with the fast-changing market.

Additive manufacturing, robots and cobots, Factory 4.0, virtual and augmented reality, digital twins… The word “innovation”, too often overused and abused, has really come into its own at Thales Alenia Space!

Today’s communications satellites are all-digital and extremely flexible, with some of them even reconfigurable in orbit in near-real time. New approaches have also emerged in Earth observation. The BlackSky constellation offers high revisit frequency and submetric resolution. The Internet of Things and 5G/6G are a key part of these new market requirements. At the same time, technologies are being miniaturized more than ever.

Our computers and even our smartphones are increasingly compact – and powerful.This is a proven trend in many industries, and space is no exception. In this section, we’re not going to speculate blindly, but rather try to understand what technologies will be deployed by the space industry in the coming years. It’s not an exhaustive list of course, and we’ll be focusing on how the space sector will support the rollout of 5G and on quantum telecommunications.

5G: new challenges and the space industry’s role

© iStock

New challenges

The fifth generation of mobile telecom standards, better known as 5G, will significantly boost the performance of 4G communications networks, while also paving the way for a new digital revolution. With 5G, we’re plunging into the realm of ultra-high-throughput, with data rates ten times, or even one hundred times faster than 4G! This transition will revolutionize the user experience, for example when viewing hi-def videos. Bringing higher reliability and virtually instantaneous transmissions, 5G will further global connectivity, by supporting a very dense network of simultaneously connected objects. 5G opens the door to innumerable possibilities, fostering the very-large-scale development of the Internet of Things (IoT). Companies in B2B markets will be the primary beneficiaries of 5G’s capabilities. This next generation of mobile communications will lay the foundations for the digital transformation of industry, offering a new gateway to the automation of industrial processes. We’re already moving towards the replacement of conventional industrial technologies, based on dedicated, closed and therefore costly systems, by IoT, meaning remotely controlled connected machines, supervised in real time with data uplinks and downlinks – and all wireless of course.

5G will inevitably take its place as the nervous system of tomorrow’s factories. The space industry will play an active role in the 5G rollout by providing the means to extend the network’s coverage and broadcast capacity to meet the needs of new users (transport, security, healthcare, media, leisure, agriculture, etc.). In fact, 5G requires global coverage to address governments’ commitment to bridging the digital divide, and to meet consumer demand for “anywhere, anytime” service, while also satisfying the demands of new users. 5G will use operators’ relay antennas for the deployment, along with new frequency bands not used by 4G. The 4G gaps in coverage could be bridged by satellites. For the first time, satellites could incorporate a mobile phone standard, namely 5G, that would extend the network’s coverage and broadcast capacity to provide an effective and reliable global solution. In the future, smartphones will connect directly to satellites, in addition to the usual relay antennas.

Where satellites come in

Image of an astronaut at the bus station
© iStock

Satellites provide a tremendous technological solution to help bridge the digital divide and open up remote and underserved areas. They can provide telecom services in regions that were previously isolated (mountains, forests, rural areas) and support mobile communications (especially maritime and aeronautical services). Satellites won’t provide the same performance as a terrestrial network in these areas, but they will ensure a minimum level of mobile service. Addressing the needs of new users, satellites will provide certified precision to within ten meters for the geolocation services offered by 5G.

Satellites also support a dense network of simultaneously connected objects, for example on fleets of cargo planes with sensors making transoceanic flights, or cars equipped with modems. In short, satellites are an ideal resource to meet the challenge inherent in the IoT revolution.

How Thales Alenia Space is contributing

Since 2018, Thales Alenia Space has taken the lead in the standardization process undertaken with 3GPP, the international standardization body, to ensure that 5G supports satellite solutions.

That same year, 3GPP approved an initial set of 5G standards (“Release 15”), which should enable this new technology to be deployed as soon as possible. The combined efforts of Thales Alenia Space and its partners resulted in a feasibility report published in 2018 concerning 5G system support for satellites and kickoff of the standardized phase at the end of 2019. 3GPP’s “Release 17” provides for the satellite segment to be integrated in 5G networks within 18 months. Starting in April 2022, a set of global technical specifications, called “Non Terrestrial Networks”, developed under the leadership of Thales Alenia Space, is available to support the seamless integration of communications satellites and High Altitude Platform Systems (HAPS) in 5G networks and enable the implementation of a single global system.

Thales Alenia Space is also playing an active role in the development and demonstration of technologies allowing access to high-throughput services:

Image of Omnispace
Omnispace © Thales Alenia Space

  • February 2018: Thales Alenia Space contributes to the first demonstration of 5G technology during the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, within the scope of the European Horizon 2020 project, 5G Champion. In particular, this demo involved fitting some of the buses carrying fans between Olympic sites with 5G capabilities, including screens showing very-high-quality 3D videos. That gave passengers a real taste of VHT transmissions.
  • July 2018: Thales Alenia Space is involved in the 5G Allstar R&D project, which uses the results and teamwork experience in the 5G Champion project to design, develop and test multi-connectivity based on multiple access, combining cellular technologies and access via satellite, selected from a set of proofs of concept, to support available very-high-throughput services.
  • February 2020: Thales Alenia Space finalizes a feasibility study for a satellite infrastructure to offer a broadband service specifically intended for smartphones. Funded by French space agency CNES, this study validated various technical concepts as well as the economic aspects of satellite constellations that could count on 5G to offer extended coverage to users.

  • April 2020: Omnispace chooses Thales Alenia Space as prime contractor for two low Earth orbit (LEO) nanosatellites, SPARK-1 and SPARK-2. These two smallsats will provide the initial component in a satellite network infrastructure dedicated to the Internet of Things (IoT), thus enabling Omnispace to roll out its version of a global hybrid network, based on 3GPP standards. The first two satellites were successfully launched in 2022.
  • February 2021: Thales Alenia Space teams up with South Korean operator KT SAT, the first company in the world to market 5G, to carry out a demonstration designed to bring 5G networks into isolated regions, using the Koreasat-5A geostationary communications satellite.
  • July 2021: Thales Alenia Space teams up with Hellas Sat to carry out a demonstration of a 5G link via satellite. The experiment involved providing a connection between a core network and a base station via the Hellas Sat 3 / Inmarsat S EAN satellite, built by Thales Alenia Space. The satellite will become an integral part of the terrestrial 5G network, since it will receive data from the terrestrial component of the 5G network, then relay this data to isolated zones.

Quantum communications

Quantum physics developed over the first half of the 20th century (1900-1948), resulting in major advances such as the invention of the transistor in 1947, then the laser in 1960. Our world wouldn’t be the same today if not for this first quantum revolution. It’s based on devices that manipulate large amounts of quantum objects (electrons, photons). The resulting applications are ubiquitous in our daily lives, spanning all electronic devices from smartphones to laser beams on fiber-optic networks, Blu-ray drives, barcode readers, medical lasers and other medical devices, such as MRI scanners.

Today, we’re on the cusp of a second quantum revolution, as reflected in our recently acquired ability to manipulate single quantum objects.

© Thales Alenia Space/Master Image Programmes

To date, there are three main types of application:

  • Quantum computing, a business we’re not involved in, that allows designing and programming computers offering a significant increase in computing power over the current generation.
  • Quantum sensors, which could be used to develop measurement instruments offering unrivaled performance, such as atomic clocks, as well as quantum antennas, accelerometers and gravimeters. In general, matter’s quantum properties allow us to project a ten-fold to a hundred-fold improvement versus today’s measurement instruments – and even one thousand times better in certain cases. These sensors open the door to a number of possible applications across a wide variety of business sectors:  manufacturing, automotive, defense, healthcare (where it would be used to diagnose some neurodegenerative diseases), science and more. The Thales group is investing heavily in research on quantum sensors – and Thales Alenia Space will design satellites with quantum instruments at the heart of the payload. 
  • Quantum communications. Thales Alenia Space is involved in this field at several levels. First, quantum physics allows us to share chains of random numbers without exchanging them, so they are completely confidential. This is known as quantum cryptography, or quantum key distribution (QKD). These “keys” offer ultra-secure encryption to transmit highly confidential data – and that’s critical, because we already know that quantum computers can crack the RSA asymmetric encryption keys that are now used daily, over the Internet for instance. Even if this only comes to pass in ten years, we should already be thinking about replacing encryption systems – and quantum keys are a candidate! Their advantage is based on the fact that current systems assume no computation system can break their code – although this hasn’t been proven. A number of critical sectors would be concerned, starting with governments, the healthcare system and its particularly sensitive data, and critical infrastructures such as those for power distribution or air travel. Central banks are also interested because quantum keys would allow them to securely issue cryptocurrencies or define “tokens” for financial securities or non-fungible tokens (NFT). According to experts at these banks, there are only three ways to provide the requisite level of security, and the quantum key is one. Besides these keys, quantum communications could also be used to help develop a new type of network that would interconnect quantum sensors or computers to further boost performance. The devices that will enable quantum information networks already exist, in labs, but we still have a way to go to make them reliable enough for daily operation.

Space systems and tomorrow’s quantum communications networks

Tomorrow’s quantum communications networks
© Thales Alenia Space/Master Image Programmes

Transferring quantum states from one place to another uses single particles of light: the same photons that transit through optical fibers or in open space. It’s possible to place two distant photons in superposed quantum states that are complementary and correlated. In this case, the two particles are linked by a property known as quantum entanglement.

To carry light particles through optical fibers requires a quantum infrastructure with a terrestrial fiber-optic component in each city, connected to other cities by satellites.

In the dense environment of fiber-optics, photons are absorbed by this material. Because they are quantum, the associated signals are very weak and can’t be amplified because that would disturb their state. As a result, quantum signals in optical fibers are limited to a range of about one hundred kilometers – a restriction that no longer applies in open space. A satellite can send a laser beam towards Earth to a range of a thousand kilometers. In short, to link major cities, satellites are indispensable. They are also essential for the development of quantum communications.

Thales Alenia Space and quantum communications

Thales Alenia Space and quantum communications
© Thales Alenia Space/Master Image Programmes

The company carried out preliminary research a dozen years ago to evaluate the potential of quantum cryptography for applications requiring highly secure communications.  In particular, Thales and its academic partners built a complete demonstrator, which was installed and underwent full-scale tests on fiber-optic networks connecting distant nodes within a large city.

Thales Alenia Space is already actively working on various quantum communications projects, and we’ve kicked off several specific efforts concerning sensors and computers.

Thales Alenia Space is working on the following quantum communications projects:

  • Quantum key projects being prepared by the European Quantum Communication Infrastructure via the OpenQKD testbed, phases A and B of EuroQCI (with Deutsche Telekom), ESA’s SAGA program for the EuroQCI space segment and the quantum segment of Europe’s future Secure Connectivity constellation. Thales Alenia Space could also capitalize on its unrivaled expertise in constellations to become a key part of this ambitious program instigated by European Commissioner, Thierry Breton.
  • The definition and prototyping of space components for quantum information networks, with an in-orbit demonstration planned by 2025.