Airbus Charges Ahead with Electric Propulsion

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Profile | Eric Beranger,
Head of Space Systems/Programs, Airbus Defence and Space


Airbus Defence and Space’s satellite division is coming off a strong 2014 during which it maintained its share of the global market for geostationary telecommunications satellites. More importantly, the company sold its first two all-electric-propulsion satellites — one large, one small — to major customers.

After booking a third all-electric spacecraft earlier this year, Airbus thinks its all-electric portfolio is well-positioned to capture a big share of demand for the new propulsion technology.

With the euro’s decline against the U.S. dollar acting as a tailwind, Airbus’ satellite division head, Eric Beranger, said the company is determined not to be a bystander if a market develops for low-orbiting Internet-delivery constellations of satellites. Most of these constellation proposals have originated in the United States.

While telecommunications is the majority of its commercial satellite business, Airbus is also the world leader in the number of Earth observation satellites sold to export markets — in Latin America, the Middle East and Asia. It is a market that appears headed for growth.

Beranger spoke recently with SpaceNews Paris bureau chief Peter B. de Selding.


 

How big is demand for electric-propulsion satellites today among geostationary-satellite fleet operators?
About half the bid requests we receive today include at least an option for electric propulsion. There is a real interest among customers for all-electric spacecraft. Sometimes it’s even the baseline requirement in the request for proposals.
Then it’s a question of whether it’s fully electric or electric just for station-keeping or for partial orbit raising as a hybrid with chemical. In our view, eventually at least 50 percent of the market will use electric in one way or another.

All-electric satellites take months to get to final orbit, versus days for chemical. Won’t that always be an issue?
Yes, but it depends on the technology used. For more than two years we have had an all-electric solution available for large, high-powered satellites, up to 6,000 kilograms typically. That is important because, for this kind of satellite, we have an all-electric solution that puts them into final position between three and six months after launch.
Of the two large all-electric satellites we have under contract, one takes about four months, and for the other the orbit-raising plan has not been finalized. So we’ve been able to sell all-electric satellites with a classic mass profile while still offering three to six months to orbit, which we think the market will appreciate.

The first two Western all-electric satellites, built by Boeing, were just launched and will take up to eight months to reach final position.
Each mission is a special case and its operator must determine what the acceptable tradeoffs are in the business case. You can have an orbital infrastructure at much lower cost, but you must wait several months before operations. Obviously all operators want their satellites to arrive ready for service as quickly as possible.

Eutelsat 172B
Eutelsat 172B. Credit: AIrbus

How do operators make the tradeoff between using the weight savings to add capacity, or to get a less-expensive launch?
It is the operator’s choice. Take our SES-12 satellite being built for SES, or example. By using electrical propulsion for orbit transfer and station-keeping, you save a lot on weight. You also gain in volume because the chemical fuel reservoirs aren’t there, so you have more space to put things on the satellite. This is what SES decided to do, and SES-12 is really two missions in one.
For the Eutelsat 172B all-electric satellite we are building, Eutelsat decided to maintain the original satellite mission and use the weight savings — less than 3,500 kilograms compared to 6,000 kilograms if it used chemical propellant — to reduce launch costs. This satellite will ride in the lower berth of the Ariane 5 rocket.

Is that a product differentiator?
I believe we are the only satellite manufacturer offering all-electric for such high-power and high-capacity satellites. That’s one of the reasons we chose plasma propulsion.

And you selected plasma also because it was the technology offered by Safran Snecma, your propulsion partner?
No, we looked around at what was available on the market. It’s no surprise that Safran has it, and we have now ordered the PPS 5000 motor from them. It is more powerful than the products they had previously had on the market. Fakel of Russia also has this technology. These are the two main suppliers, although others are arriving. Given our wish to adapt the technology for small and large satellites, this seemed like the most appropriate choice.

Eutelsat 172B will be the first use of the Snecma PPS 5000 plasma motor. Will there be a backup system as well?
On 172B we organized the production so that the satellite can launch at the moment Eutelsat wants it. Eutelsat is very clear that they want this to arrive on time. So we have several options in terms of electric motors.

Snecma's PPS 1350 plasma thruster
Snecma’s PPS 1350 plasma thruster is a lower-output version of its PPS 5000 series, which is in development. Credit: Snecma

Will you use a backup to the PPS 5000 given that this will be its first flight?
If the PPS 5000 is on time, we will put this on board, as planned. There is not a lot of space on the satellite for backup solutions. For now, Safran is on schedule and we have no special concerns about this — so far, so good.

What is the mass of SES-12 and SES-14?
The first weighs about 5,300 kilograms, the second is a bit less than 5,000 kilograms.

Was it industry conservatism that forced you to wait for two years before your first all-electric order, and caused a three-year lag for Boeing between its first commercial order and a second?
Yes, and that’s why 2014 was so important for us, because we signed two electric-powered satellites that year, the SES-12 for one, and then the Eutelsat 172B, both of which are market references. The SES-14 contract came earlier this year. It’s proof that our product is judged solid enough that even the most demanding customers will choose it.

Beyond the two all-electric orders, how do you evaluate your commercial performance in 2014?
In 2014 we signed four telecommunications satellite contracts, plus a telecommunications payload for a customer I cannot name. And what is more, in 2014 and early this year we signed contracts with SES for satellites carrying processors that represent an advance in flexible payloads.
In 2014, we had 24 percent of the market when measured by value. We have been between 20 and 25 percent for several years running now.
The satellites we signed in 2014 mean that we have now signed contracts with the seven largest commercial satellite fleet operators in the world — DirecTV, EchoStar, SES, Intelsat, Eutelsat, Inmarsat and Telesat.

Wasn’t French government of some help in the Eutelsat 172B award?
The government did not bring direct assistance but did so indirectly because a government bond program, PIA, has identified electric propulsion as a priority for satellites, and decided to promote next-generation electric propulsion. Obviously that helps.

There may have been a bit more government assistance than that, notably with the launch price.
Let’s say we were lucky that all this came into place at the same time.

Horizon 2020
Horizon 2020. Credit: European Commission

Some satellite builders have criticized the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and development program for not being sufficiently focused to produce commercially usable products. Do you agree?
Everyone learns while walking. Horizon 2020 is a real opportunity given the amount of available investment, and it’s important that it be organized in an optimal way. We need to determine specific areas that we want to promote. This is now being put into place.
This is a new area for the commission and will require, de facto, new approaches and new competencies for the commission. We’ll need to judge by the results.

One example of the dispersion and duplication of government investment in Europe is satellite electric thrusters. Aren’t there too many?
I know of at least three — German, French and British.

Plus a U.S. company that set up shop in Britain.
A false Englishman then!

What is Airbus’ role in the Eutelsat Quantum program, which is backed by the British government and designed to produce a flexible satellite payload? A contract is expected in the coming weeks.
We had payload-flexibility elements in-house already from our work on active antennas, for both transmission and reception, on the British Skynet military satellite communications program.
On our Hylas 1 commercial satellite payload for Avanti of London, we had a partially flexible payload with respect to reorganizing the distribution of channels.
Now we are able to use these elements to make a software-defined payload. So when you add the flexibility we have developed at signal reception, and the flexibility we have in the middle — channel treatment, signal dispatching and reorganizing — and our flexibility in signal transmission, we have something that will completely reconfigure the power, the coverage, the frequency plan and the channel bandwidth.
It’s as if you had a building, and you put it where you want — New York, Paris, Tokyo — and you then can reorganize the interior as a function of where you are — the number of apartments per floor, and the number of rooms per apartment and so on.
Plus SSTL of Britain (which Airbus owns) has for some time wanted to deploy its geostationary platform. Airbus has a platform that lends itself to medium- to high-power satellites, from seven to 15-16 kilowatts, and we are developing the capacity of this platform. The next generation will go up to 25 kilowatts.
We wanted access to a smaller platform. The fact that SSTL was capable of developing this and using it for a flexible mission gave us a win-win.

GMPT SSTL
Geostationary Minisatellite Platform — Telecommunications (GMPT). Credit: SSTL

So Airbus brings the flexible payload, and SSTL brings the Geostationary Minisatellite Platform — Telecommunications (GMPT). Plus you needed a strong British contribution because the U.K. government is the major investor.

SSTL has been working on the GMPT platform with the support of the British government, and we have been working on the flexible payload, which interests several agencies, including the U.K. Space Agency.

So all this, combined with the fact that Eutelsat wants this kind of mission, gave us an opportunity. A space agency finances only the development piece, not the major share of a satellite platform to be used commercially.

The French government, through the PIA, aids in-flight qualification, for example the PPS 5000.
True, but this is a small percentage of the total cost of the satellite and covers only a part of the cost of development of a new product.

It’s unusual to have a single European government finance such a large share of an ESA program as the U.K. government is doing for Quantum.
The British have decided to finance development of space applications, and telecommunications has a large share of that. So they have raised their profile in terms of telecommunications development financing. They now have the largest share of the European Space Agency’s telecommunications budget.

Is Quantum scalable to larger platforms?
Absolutely. We have developed the components of the system; now we need to assemble them to fly together. This will allow us to reinforce the fact that this is useful and works as advertised.

There is a new interest in low-orbiting satellite Internet constellations. Do you believe in it?
There are several projects hitting the road recently. One school of thought says, “We’ve seen this before.” But no one knows how this will end up. Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple are looking at the ensemble of solutions to get more users of their services. That leads them to look at satellites, ground transmission, high-altitude balloons, drones — everything.
Given the growing need for communications in the Big Data world of tomorrow, there will be a huge demand that will continue to grow. No one technology will work. You’ll need to use ground, air and satellite platforms.
If this new market develops, we will obviously be interested in it.

30-cm to 70-cm resolution
An interactive graphic on DigitalGlobe’s website illustrates how the company’s WorldView-3’s 30-centimeter resolution imagery compares to 70-centimeter imagery. Credit: DigitalGlobe screen capture

Your job is also to sell Airbus Earth observation satellites. Do you need a 30-centimeter-resolution product to keep up with DigitalGlobe of the United States, which is now marketing imagery that sharp?
I can’t comment on our current technical capabilities, but today Airbus is, with DigitalGlobe, a first-tier actor in commercial Earth observation. Our competitor now has demonstrated such a product. But I can’t comment on our roadmap and what the development status is.

Latin America has become an active market for Earth observation satellites.
There is a strong interest there, but in other places as well. Airbus is the world’s leading exporter of Earth observation satellites — 10 satellites or so to seven or eight nations. No one else has done that.

You won the contract to build PeruSat-1, a submetric satellite for the Peruvian armed forces. Was this win based on a France-Peru government agreement?
We won the contract, against tough competition, with our technology — silicon carbide and our detectors. We’ve been developing silicon carbide for more than 10 years. It is notably flying on Europe’s Rosetta comet chaser satellite. It’s a very rigid material and we use it to make both the mirror and its support structure, eliminating any interface issues.
This is a real advance. It allows you to have shorter development schedules. We delivered the Kazakh Earth observation satellite in record time. For the PeruSat-1, we committed to delivering it by mid-2016. If we had not been able to commit to a price and a schedule there is no way we would have won the contract.
For the detectors, we can now do black and white and color on the same strip so that the focal plane that concentrates the photons can be one half the size — with half the power consumption and half the constraints on thermal control. It can be smaller and simpler to integrate.

You are building the Paz radar satellite for Spain. What is the status?
Paz will be launched this year aboard a Dnepr rocket from Russia’s Yasny spaceport. In addition to Paz, our Lisa Pathfinder and Sentinel 2A Earth observing satellites will launch this year.