Eutelsat To Order Geostationary Spacecraft from Small-sat Specialist Surrey

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PARIS — Satellite fleet operator Eutelsat of Paris is purchasing the inaugural geostationary-orbiting spacecraft from small-satellite builder SSTL of Britain following a technology risk-reduction program financed by SSTL, Airbus Defence and Space and the 20-nation European Space Agency, Eutelsat is expected to announce Dec. 8.

The satellite design, called Eutelsat Quantum, employs an Airbus-built analog on-board signal processor and a phased-array antenna design, also by Airbus, fitted onto SSTL’s Geostationary Multi-mission Platform for Telecommunications, or GMP-T, satellite bus.

Guildford, England-based SSTL — Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. — has long been seeking to expand its portfolio from low and medium Earth orbit into the market for larger telecommunications satellites, which operate in geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers over the equator.

With substantial investment by the U.K. Space Agency and Airbus, SSTL now has its first geostationary customer.

At a Dec. 2 meeting of European Space Agency governments, ESA ministers — led by Britain, which has committed to financing some 90 percent of the effort — adopted what ESA referred to as the Artes 33 AnySat program. Under ESA’s Artes telecommunications research programs, ESA and industry co-finance development of interesting technologies.

The British government committed to 60 million euros ($75 million) in initial program funding, with Italy at 2.5 million euros and Canada at 1.2 million euros. The remaining 16.3 million euros will be collected later, in addition to the matching funds from Airbus.

ESA Telecommunications Director Magali Vaissiere said after the ESA ministerial conference that Artes 33 would produce, with Eutelsat, a highly flexible satellite payload that would essentially allow operators to deploy such platforms wherever they wanted, certain of being able to redefine the coverage areas through software uploads in the event the business case changed or the satellite were moved to a new orbital slot.

That is what Eutelsat and other satellite operators have said they need, and that is what Eutelsat is getting with Eutelsat Quantum, said Jacques Dutronc, Eutelsat’s chief development and innovation officer.

“The idea here is to adapt the satellite to the customer’s needs, and not vice versa,” Dutronc said in a Dec. 5 interview. “With a conventional technology, once you design a frequency plan and the coverage area, even if you have steerable beams, there is a limit to the flexibility and re-configurability you can achieve. The size of the ground antennas, the transmitted bit rate — all this has to be designed to fit whatever is up in space.

“We have made a paradigm shift to do it the other way around. If the customer wants to have coverage between two specific places, with Eutelsat Quantum we can synthesize the coverage electronically from the ground. Once the satellite is in orbit you choose whatever coverage you need. If that changes over time, you adapt again and again so that, instead of having a fixed wide beam or spending energy where it is not needed, you are putting the energy only where the customer wants it,” Dutronc said.

The phased-array antenna permits the satellite operator to generate beams independently through ground commands — a step toward a software-defined satellite that has long been the dream of fleet operators.

The Airbus on-board processor enables the pairing of any part of the Ku-band frequency with any other part, making the satellite easily compatible with the different regulatory requirements in the different regulatory regions of the International Telecommunication Union, which regulates satellite frequencies and orbital slots.

Dutronc said the first Eutelsat Quantum satellite, based on the SSTL GMP-T platform and using the Airbus processor, would be ordered early in 2015, with a launch in 2018. The satellite is expected to weigh about 3,500 kilograms at launch, including a 450-kilogram payload, and to deliver 5 kilowatts of power to its payload.