ABS Teaming with Boeing, SpaceX for another Electric Satellite

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SINGAPORE — Satellite fleet operator ABS is ordering a third Boeing 702SP all-electric satellite for launch in late 2017 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket even before the first one, which inaugurated the all-electric Boeing product, reaches final operating position and proves itself, ABS Chief Executive Thomas Choi said June 1.

A contract signing is expected this week, Choi said.

Choi said the business plan for the ABS-8 satellite, to be located at 116.1 degrees east in geostationary orbit, stands on its own merits without requiring that Bermuda-based ABS find a co-passenger for the Falcon 9 launch.

He said ABS and Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX may eventually find a second satellite to share the launch but that this would only add to the project’s profitability and is not indispensable.

In a presentation here to the CASBAA Satellite industry Forum 2015 conference, and a brief interview afterwards, Choi said the ABS-3A satellite launched in March is not only expected to reach geostationary orbit faster than predicted, but that it also is generating more on-board power than ABS had penciled into its forecasts.

ABS-3A and the Eutelsat 115 West B, owned by Paris-based Eutelsat’s Eutelsat Americas division, were the first two Western-built all-electric satellites and part of a four-satellite package whose second pair, also owned by ABS and Eutelsat, is scheduled for launch late this year aboard a Falcon 9.

All-electric satellites replace chemical propellant and shave hundreds of kilograms from a satellite’s launch mass, allowing owners to pile on additional payload capacity or take advantage of lower launch costs.

But the all-electric design requires months, not a couple of weeks, to reach final geostationary position some 36,000 kilometers over the equator.

The ABS and Eutelsat satellites will reach their destination this autumn.

But Choi said his company is so happy with the initial performance that it proceeded with the order for ABS-8 even though the contract comes too late to take advantage of the options included in the initial four-satellite contract.

Asked whether he was concerned that SpaceX’s launch manifest might not be able to accommodate a 2017 launch, Choi said he was confident that a mutually agreeable launch date would be found and that, in any event, the ABS-7 satellite is already at the 116.1-degree slot, partly relieving the launch schedule pressure.

ABS-8 is a tri-band satellite with C-, Ku- and Ka-band capacity, part of it devoted to a high-throughput mission with multiple spot beams that, depending on market conditions then, could be transformed into a more-classic widebeam satellite given the flexibility of the payload.

Without going into details, Choi said ABS would be focusing on high-throughput video distribution in certain markets with satellites that will cost much less, on a cost-per-megabit basis, than today’s models.

He said ABS-8 will cost “an order of magnitude less” than current-generation geostationary satellites, a feature Choi said is necessary if the satellite industry is to survive the onslaught of terrestrial broadband competition.

“This industry is growing at maybe 2-3 percent per year and that is not healthy versus mobile telcos growing at a low-double-digit rate,” Choi said. “I hear satellite operators saying some of their markets are saturated, but if you decrease your prices you will find more customers, and that means some sort of HTS [high-throughtput satellite] platform.

“We have talked to telcos about ABS-8 and they have said, ‘This is amazing, we can be more competitive with this than with microwave to go into more rural areas.’”