The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is considering plans for a new generation of satellites. And for the first time the United States is facing competition in a NATO satellite contract from a European country.
NATO, with its headquarters in Brussels, needs satellites to relay communications among government offices of its member countries and military headquarters.
So far it has put into orbit three generations of satellites, all of them built by Ford Aerospace of the US. In the current third generation of satellites , three vehicles are in stationary orbit above the Atlantic. These craft were placed in space between 1976 and 1978.
A fourth member of the same series is scheduled to enter orbit in the fall. But NATO officials believe these craft will stop operating in the early 1990s. They need to decide soon on NATO's fourth family of satellites.
The officials are attempting to choose between two families of satellites that have already been designed. The US contender consists of the third generation of Defense Satellite Communications System (DSCS-3) vehicles built by General Electric for the Pentagon.
The rival to this is a design based on the Skynet 4 military satellites that two British companies, British Aerospace and Marconi, are building for Britain's Ministry of Defense.
NATO says it will need either two complete Skynet 4 satellites or a half share in two DSCS-3 vehicles. (The other halves would provide communications for US armed forces.) Both options would cost about the same, NATO officials say, indicating the higher communications capability of the American satellite. The cost of either venture has not been disclosed, but according to industry sources , NATO would need to spend about $250 million on either option.
NATO thinks that by choosing satellites that have already been designed it will be able to keep down project costs. In the three earlier gnerations of satellites it asked Ford to develop new hardware solely for NATO's needs. Officials say they will probably have to choose between the two rivals within the next year. Britain's two Skynet-4 satellites are to enter orbit in 1985 and 1986. They will be launched by the US space shuttle.
General Electric, meanwhile, is building seven DSCS-3 satellites for the US armed forces. So far only one has entered orbit. The DSC-3 satellites will gradually replace the Defense Department's DSCS-2 vehicles which were built by TRW Industries. The US has in orbit 15 DSCS-2 satellites, of which 7 are thought to be operational.