ABS All-electric Satellite Arrives Early at Operating Orbit

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PARIS — Satellite fleet operator ABS on Sept. 10 said its ABS-3A satellite, the world’s first all-electric commercial telecommunications spacecraft, has reached final geostationary position and begun operations six months after its launch.

Bermuda-based ABS said the satellite’s entry into service occurred about one month ahead of schedule.

The advantage of all-electric satellites is their low launch mass, allowing the purchase of less-expensive launch services or, in the case of ABS, enabling satellite operators to launch two satellites at a time depending on the rocket selected. The disadvantage is that they take months to reach geostationary position, rather than a couple of weeks for satellites with chemical propellant.

ABS-3A was launched in March aboard a Falcon 9 rocket operated by SpaceX of Hawthorne, California. The 1,950-kilogram satellite was paired with the slightly heavier Eutelsat 115 West B, which weighed 2,200 kilograms, for a launch that became a showcase for how even smaller fleet operators can trim capital expenditures with smart buying practices.

ABS and Satmex secured favorable contract terms from Boeing both as inaugural customers for the all-new Boeing 702SP design, and because of the commitment to a minimum four-satellite order.

Paris-based Eutelsat said Eutelsat 115 West B is scheduled to arrive at its operating station, 115 degrees west longitude, by late September and to commence service in October, with the heavier mass accounting for the one-month difference in arrival times between the two satellites.

ABS-3A carries 24 C-band and 24 Ku-band transponders and is expected to provide telecommunications to the Americas, Africa, Europe and the Middle East for at least 15 years.

ABS and fleet operator Satmex of Mexico — since purchased by Eutelsat — in March 2012 were the talk of the satellite telecommunications industry following their contract with Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, California, and with SpaceX. The contract included four firm satellite orders and options, with the first four satellites — two for ABS, two for Satmex — paired on Falcon 9 launches.

The second pair of satellites, ABS-2A and Eutelsat 117 West B, had been awaiting a launch in late 2015 aboard a Falcon 9 before that vehicle’s June failure put the Falcon 9 schedule on hold. ABS said it is now hoping for a launch in early 2016.

Industry officials at the time said ABS and Satmex paid about $90 million for each satellite, with the two evenly dividing the cost of a $60 million Falcon 9 launch.

Building and launching satellites carrying 40-plus transponders for around $120 million apiece was unheard of at the time of the contract signing. Since then, other satellite builders, especially Airbus Defence and Space of Europe, have plowed resources into their own all-electric designs and have won commercial orders.

Boeing has struggled to repeat its ABS/Satmex success, in part because the value proposition of its all-electric design depends on committing two satellites to a single Falcon 9 launch. That means finding customers whose schedules are sufficiently aligned to permit them to undertake satellite construction and launch in tandem. As Boeing has discovered since 2012, this is no easy task.

Boeing had booked an order with PSN of Indonesia, but the contract was conditioned on Boeing finding another customer to share a Falcon 9 launch. No such customer was found, and the contract was canceled.

More recently, ABS ordered another all-electric 702SP satellite from Boeing and said it was not dependent on finding a co-passenger. But the contract, for the ABS-8 satellite, was suspended following the July closure of the U.S. Export-Import Bank, whose operating authorization by Congress was not renewed.

Without export-credit agency financing, ABS is now reviewing its options, Chief Executive Thomas Choi has said.

Most members of Congress have expressed support for Ex-Im and there is likely to be an attempt to reauthorize it this autumn.