Solar panel suppliers adjust to GEO satellite slowdown

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This article originally appeared in the Jan. 15, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Suppliers of solar panels and related equipment for the space industry are pivoting to serve customers planning satellites for low and medium Earth orbits as the slow down in geostationary satellite orders persists.

Commercial satellite operators ordered just seven geostationary telecommunications satellites in 2017 — well below the 20 to 25 orders considered normal in years past. Orders for 2016 and 2015 topped out in the teens (still below average, but better than last year).

Space solar panel providers say they see a shift toward other orbits that they must prepare to meet with different products and manufacturing techniques in addition to the large panels built to support the slower flow of GEO satellites.

“It’s well known that number of GEOs in 2017 especially [was] down, but then there have been other programs, other orbits, other missions that have either been announced — or are in progress and haven’t been announced — that dictate the total demand of power,” Tony Mueller, president of Spectrolab, a solar-panel manufacturer owned by Boeing, told SpaceNews. “In general there’s been less demand from larger satellites over the past several years in terms of the GEO order bookings, but overall solar demand pops up in one segment of the market while another may be going down.”

Factoring in the seven-satellite order that fleet operator SES placed in September for the medium-Earth-orbit O3b mPower constellation does dampen the impact of 2017’s low GEO count, but only for Boeing Satellite Systems International, the winner of what turned out to be the year’s largest comsat order. Last year’s other big win, in terms of dollar value, was Space Systems Loral’s contract to build Jupiter-3. SSL president Dario Zamarian said in September the contract was worth three to four normal GEO comsat wins. If that becomes a trend, it could make satellite manufacturing an even “lumpier” business with peaks and valleys determined by single orders.

Constellation programs such as Telesat LEO and the soon-to-launch LEO systems of SpaceX and OneWeb may also soon fill the void made by the dearth of GEO satellite purchases, but the full magnitude of these changes remains unclear.

GEO satellites have guided demand for space solar power, but as satellite operators diversify the sizes and orbits of their spacecraft, the types of solar panels they rely on also change. (Credit: Spectrolab/Boeing)
GEO satellites have guided demand for space solar power, but as satellite operators diversify the sizes and orbits of their spacecraft, the types of solar panels they rely on also change. (Credit: Spectrolab/Boeing)

“There is quite an uncertainty on the level of the satellite operators if they should invest in additional geostationary satellites or if they should invest in constellations, or maybe not going to big constellations of hundreds of very small satellites, but replacing one big GEO bird by [buying] four or five smaller mid-sized satellites,” said Jürgen Heizmann, managing director of Azur Space Solar Power in Heilbronn, Germany. “I think the biggest issue is the delay in decision-making and results from this uncertainty about the right way forward in the new market.”

“Historically, about 60 percent of satellite manufacturing revenues have been driven by commercial GEO satellite demand,” added SolAero CEO Brad Clevenger. “So, the slow down to about half of the typical number of GEO satellites ordered each year has produced a challenging couple of years.”

Heizmann said the low GEO order count has led both manufacturers of satellites to take on more work typically delegated to suppliers, and supplier to push upward to higher levels of spacecraft integration.

“At the prime level of satellite manufacturers and also at the supplier level there is uncertainty and reorganization,” he said. “Everybody is trying at the moment to find their position, or to position better in the new industry order that is still not defined how it will look like.”

Chasing new orbits

Satellite ventures don’t always reveal their suppliers, but Albuquerque, New Mexico-based SolAero is OneWeb’s appointed provider of solar panels for its first 900 LEO smallsats. Clevenger counts SolAero as “a successful, early entrant into the emerging smallsat arena,” but cautioned that there is a gap between the waning of GEO and the rise of LEO constellations.

“The GEO slowdown began in 2015, and many major non-GEO initiatives have not yet begun satellite production. Based on what we see in the market, demand will grow and likely exceed prior highs once some of these new programs enter production,” he said.

SolAero’s Clevenger and Azur Space’s Heizmann both see the surge in variation among spacecraft sizes and orbits as likely to be a permanent change. GEO satellites aren’t going away, they say, but both expect multiple large non-geosynchronous systems to succeed.

Mueller said Sylmar, California-based Spectrolab “will have to wait and see how the next few years play out.” Commercial GEO satellite orders are in an unusually long downcycle, he said, but LEO constellations promised new business in the 1990s and didn’t deliver. That said, Mueller pointed to a mix of government programs and constellations as balancing out the demand for spacecraft power.

Impact on the future of solar

GEO satellites have historically driven much of the development in spacecraft solar power given their dominant market share. Now that smaller and more diverse satellite types are rising in number, they bring variations in solar cell size and shape, thickness and radiation tolerance.

“The complexity we are going to in this industry makes it more difficult than in the past to invest in R&D,” Heizmann said, adding that the biggest driver from commercial GEO satellites was on optimizing solar cell performance all the way through to end of life 15 or 20 years after launch. “We are continuing our investment in end-of-life, radiation-hardened solutions that are important for long-term missions in the geostationary market, and also for orbit raising, but at the same time we need solutions for more short life missions, especially constellations that have even higher cost pressure, as we have seen in OneWeb for example, or other constellation requirements, but have not as hard end of life requirements.”

Jürgen Heizmann, managing director of Azur Space Solar Power in Heilbronn, Germany. (Credit: Azur Space)
Jürgen Heizmann, managing director
of Azur Space Solar Power in Heilbronn,
Germany. (Credit: Azur Space)

Mueller said smallsat builders often prefer solar panels that are “either directly part of the spacecraft or are immediately mounted to the spacecraft body,” reducing the need for large complete panel assemblies.

“Typically, customers in the smallsat solar arena are wanting to procure either individual solar cells that they put on themselves, or ‘strings,’ circuits of solar cells where we put a number of solar cells together and the smallsat builder then populates on their spacecraft long with other components,” he said.

Clevenger said the goal of building solar technology for peak performance remains the same regardless of orbit, but the way they are produced is changing. Last year SolAero expanded its Albuquerque plant to vertically integrate panel production — solar cells, composite substrates, and integration — in preparation for OneWeb. The scale and standardization of manufacturing small satellites could spin in new techniques and technologies that benefit larger spacecraft, he said.

“As these new production practices and capabilities come online, the costs of producing smallsats will decline much faster than those of larger satellites without sacrificing quality or relative capability. In time, some of these innovations will make their ways back into the production of larger satellites, but only to a limited extent due to their sizes, complexities and uniqueness.”

Clevenger added that the notion that safety in numbers for smallsat constellations makes them more risk tolerant and thus easier to build “is a misperception.”

“The stakeholders in every company or program want to be successful and program assurance remains a central part of every undertaking,” he said.