CNES Gives All-Electric Satellite Research a $30 Million Jolt with More To Come

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PARIS — The French space agency, CNES, on March 9 said a government research program stimulating French industry development of all-electric-propulsion satellites has disbursed 25 million euros ($30 million) for its first phase, with more to come to help with in-flight technology validation.

CNES is motivated by industry forecasts saying that, by 2020, 50 percent of all commercial telecommunications satellites will be all-electric, a design that affords substantial weight savings compared to satellites using chemical propellant.

The French government’s public bond fund started making payments to French industry in 2014.

The principal beneficiaries have been France’s two main satellite prime contractors, Airbus Defence and Space, and Thales Alenia Space, as well as satellite-propulsion provider Safran’s Snecma division. These companies have agreed to co-invest in the technology alongside the government.

The second phase of the investment, whose total financing is unclear, will support in-orbit validation of the electric propulsion units.

Eutelsat 172B
Snecma’s PPS 5000 plasma propulsion unit will make its inaugural flight in 2017 aboard the Eutelsat 172B satellite. Credit: AIrbus

In particular, Snecma’s in-house PPS 5000 plasma propulsion unit represents a break from the company’s past work on electric propulsion technology licensed from Fakel of Russia. The Snecma system will make its inaugural flight in 2017 aboard the Eutelsat 172B satellite, being built by Airbus.

Paris-based fleet operator Eutelsat selected Airbus and the Snecma technology after receiving government financial incentives that also made it possible for Eutelsat to select an Ariane 5 rocket for the launch instead of a competing Falcon 9 vehicle from SpaceX of Hawthorne, California.

The bond fund, called Program for Investing in the Future, originally selected electric propulsion out of fear that Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, California, was about to run away with the market. Boeing announced in March 2012 that it had contracted for four all-electric 702SP satellites, with four more on option from the same two customers — ABS of Bermuda and Eutelsat Americas, then called Satmex.

But the Boeing product was reliant not only on the Boeing technology, but also on the financial incentive offered operators that could pair one of their satellites with a nearly identical Boeing spacecraft, with both riding on the SpaceX Falcon 9.

Boeing went three years before concluding another contract. SES of Luxembourg in February announced it had purchased a 702SP to ride in the Ariane 5 rocket’s lower berth.

Since then, Airbus has caught up with Boeing, at least in commercial sales, by winning three all-electric satellites, two in 2014 and the SES contract earlier this year.

At the request of commercial satellite fleet operators, Airbus, Boeing and their major competitors are tinkering with their designs to find the optimum compromise between weight savings, which saves on launch costs, and time-to-orbit considerations.

The first two Boeing-built 702SP satellites for ABS and Eutelsat, launched March 1 aboard a Falcon 9, are expected to take six to eight months to reach their operating orbits.