How long should a satellite last: five years, ten years, 15, 30?

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PASADENA, California — Satellite manufacturers and operators attending the Space Tech Expo here offered contrasting views on how long satellites should continue to work in orbit.

For years, government and commercial operators sought to extend the life of satellites by sending them into orbit with plenty of fuel and components designed to withstand 15 years of harsh radiation. Now, the market is diversifying. Customers want everything from cubesats built for six-month missions to geostationary communications satellites designed to last decades.

If Jean-Luc Froeliger, Intelsat vice president for satellite operations and engineering, had his way, satellites would function indefinitely.

Intelsat has launch more than 150 satellites. In every case, Intelsat salespeople found new customers for satellites in orbit. An older satellite “may not bring in the same type of revenue it did at the beginning, but the satellite and launch are paid for and operation costs are minimum,” Froelinger said.

Bryan Benedict, SES Government Solutions senior director for innovation and satellite programs, said he would like to see satellite buses that could remain on orbit for decades although “forever might be a bridge too far.” A satellite built to last forever would require extensive radiation shielding, which would make it extremely heavy. Nevertheless, Benedict said he would like to see satellite buses capable of remaining in orbit “at least twice as long as they do currently” paired with payloads flexible enough to respond to changes in the market.

In contrast, government satellite operators envision satellites of the future being refreshed more frequently. The U.S. Air Force wants to update its technology in orbit more frequently by moving from satellites designed to last 10 to 15 years to satellites built to operate for three to five years, David Davis, chief systems engineer for the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, said during an earlier keynote address.

Along the same lines, Brian Roberts, robotic technologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, suggested ten years was the optimum lifespan for a satellite. “That is the cadence we are on,” Roberts said, noting that the Hubble Space Telescope has operated much longer but its technology was updated during servicing missions.

Satellite manufactures at the Space Tech Expo agreed that the ideal lifespan of a satellite varies based on its mission.

“Trying to look for a one-size-fits-all solution is probably the wrong thing to do,” said Michael Gabor, SSL advanced programs director. “There are different classes of satellites, which drive you to longer or shorter lifespans. There is no one right solution.

Philippe Galland, Airbus Defence and Space’s OneWeb return of experience manager, said the ideal lifespan for a satellite depends on its business model. “Sometimes it’s more effective to have a cheap satellite with a shorter lifetime,” Galland said.