Airbus, Boeing and Orbital ATK Split SES Satellite Order

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PARIS — Satellite fleet operator SES, in an order highlighting an industry trend, on Feb. 16 announced contracts for three telecommunications satellites from three manufacturers, with the heaviest spacecraft weighing just 4,200 kilograms at launch.

Two of the three are all-electric-propulsion spacecraft, from Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems and Airbus Defense and Space, and are intended to offer fixed and mobile, especially aeronautical, services over the Americas and the North Atlantic Ocean region.

SES’s third order is for a conventional-propellant satellite from Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia, and will be the third contract Orbital has booked for its new, higher-power GeoStar-3 satellite frame.

El Segundo, California-based Boeing shook up the industry in March 2012 with an inaugural order of four 702SP all-electric satellites. That deal caused Boeing’s competitors to accelerate their own programs to introduce electric propulsion in the place of chemical propellant, thus shaving hundreds of kilograms from a satellite’s launch mass.

Boeing has come up empty-handed in the commercial market since then, while Airbus of Europe has introduced its own all-electric design and, with this latest SES contract, booked three all-electric satellite orders.

The Orbital ATK-built SES-16/GovSat will be owned by a joint venture between Luxembourg-based SES and the Luxembourg government called LuxGovSat. The satellite will be operated from 21.5 degrees east over Europe and will provide X- and military-Ka-band capacity for the Luxembourg government, the NATO alliance and other allied governments.

SES Chief Executive Karim Michel Sabbagh told reporters in January that prelaunch interest in the LuxGovSat joint venture’s X- and military-Ka-band capacity, plus the committed purchase agreement with the Luxembourg government, indicate the new venture will have no trouble filling the spacecraft.

SES rival Eutelsat of Paris told investors Feb. 12 that Eutelsat views government demand for satellite capacity in Europe as a growth market and that it will be part of it. The European Commission, the executive arm of the 28-nation European Union, has embarked on a study of future government satellite demand with the conclusions expected by this summer.

LuxGovSat represents a new business line for SES, which up to now has provided commercial C- and Ku-band capacity to government customers but has never ordered a satellite that was purpose-built for the military market.

The Boeing-built SES-15 will be operated from what SES said is “a new orbital location to serve North America… [to] solidify SES’s positioning in the aeronautical mobility and government markets, providing fresh capacity over major airline routes across the continent.” SES said the satellite will carry Ku- and Ka-band payload, with a portion of it reserved for high-throughput capacity.

SES did not immediately answer questions about the satellite’s power or the number of months the 702SP satellite would take to climb to final operating position from its transfer-orbit drop-off point, saying the time-to-orbit question could only be answered once a launch-service provider had been selected.

The Airbus-built SES-14 will carry C- and Ku-band transponders trained on the Americas, plus a link to Europe, in addition to a high-throughput-satellite payload with a digital transparent on-board processor to direct coverage over the Americas and the North Atlantic maritime and aeronautical routes.

Airbus said SES-14 would weigh 4,200 kilograms at launch, deliver 16 kilowatts of power to the payload and reach its final position of 46.5/48 degrees west four months after launch, depending on the rocket to be used.

The three satellites, all to be launched in 2017, are small enough to fit into the lower berth of the Arianespace Ariane 5 ECA rocket and to be orbited by competitor SpaceX’s Falcon 9 vehicle, setting up what is becoming a regular competition between Europe’s Arianespace consortium and Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX.

SES told investors in October that it planned to spend about 1.03 billion euros ($1.25 billion) on up to four new satellites, and their launches and insurance, between 2014 and 2018. The Feb. 16 order is for three of the four.