Snecma prepares for Airbus, Thales satellite electric thruster orders


PARIS — France’s Snecma expects to sell 35 plasma-electric satellite propulsion units per year over the next decade following an agreement with Europe’s two largest satellite prime contractors on the use of Snecma’s PPS 5000 thruster, Snecma said Jan. 20.

Vernon, France-based Snecma, a division of France’s Safran aero-engine manufacturer, has been working on plasma-electric satellite thrusters for 20 years, starting with a collaboration with Russia’s OKB Fakel, a pioneer in the use of electric propulsion as a lighter-weight alternative to chemical propellant for telecommunications satellites.

The French space agency, CNES, has used a public bond fund to help finance a made-in-France thruster, and the 22-nation European Space Agency has also contributed funding as part of the Neosat program to build next-generation telecommunications satellites.

CNES invested 25 million euros ($27 million) in the PPS 5000 program in early 2015 and said additional funding would follow to support in-orbit validation of the technology.

Neosat is designed to give both Airbus Defence and Space and Thales Alenia Space new-generation satellite platforms, including electric propulsion, to sharpen their competitive edge against current and future competitors in the United States, Japan, China and elsewhere.

Satellite fleet operator Eutelsat of Paris has agreed to be the first commercial operator to fly the PPS 5000, on the 172B satellite to be launched in 2017. It will be the first European-built satellite to rely on electric propulsion for both in-orbit station-keeping and orbit-raising after separation from its launch vehicle. The launch, aboard a European Ariane 5 rocket, is the beneficiary of government support to carry the PPS 5000 program through to commercial demonstration.

Snecma said Jan. 20 that ESA, Airbus and Thales Alenia Space have confirmed their selection of the PPS 5000 for the Airbus Eurostar Neo and Thales’s Spacebus Neo.

The two satellite builders are part of the same ESA and CNES development programs, but they apparently will not join forces in issuing bid requests for subcontractor components.

In the case of the PPS 5000, Snecma said there would be no single order from the two prime contractors, but two contracts negotiated separately.

“Each prime has its own requirements,” Snecma said in response to SpaceNews inquiries. “There will be no common contract. Each retains responsibility for its contracting schedule and each manages its own negotiations.”

Because of ESA’s financial implication in the Neo programs, the two prime contractors needed to win ESA authorization both for the selection of the Snecma PPS 5000, and for the start of negotiations on production contract.

These negotiations will now begin for a large-quantity order. Snecma said Airbus and Thales Alenia’s Neo platforms alone are expected to need 350 PPS 5000 thrusters over the next 10 years, an estimate the company said assumed an average of seven or eight satellites ordered per year during the period.

Airbus and Thales Alenia Space have promised a 30 percent reduction in overall telecommunications satellite costs by 2020 once they have fully integrated the different Neo program elements into their production lines. The PPS 5000 is just one of the Neo elements.

Electric propulsion saves up to 40 percent of a satellite’s launch weight for the same in-orbit capability, allowing satellite owners to load more payload onto a given platform or pocket the savings by selecting a smaller, less-costly rocket.

But an all-electric satellite will take months, not days, to climb from its transfer orbit to final geostationary position 36,000 kilometers over the equator. That delays revenue and is one reason why satellite builders are seeking electric propulsion options that reduce the time to final orbital position.