Electric-propulsion Satellites Are All the Rage

by

LE BOURGET, France — Interest in all-electric-propulsion satellites has reached levels that might lead one to think vast swarms of them will be orbiting the Earth in the coming years. Examples include:

  • Aerojet Rocketdyne President Warren M. Boley on June 17 said his company in November thought it would do $20 million in business in solar-electric satellite components in the current fiscal year. Now it looks like $40 million.
  • Jean-Yves Le Gall, president of the French space agency, CNES, on June 18 said he wants European governments to start the satellite equivalent of the Marshall Plan so as not to let Boeing and other U.S. companies get too far ahead in electric satellites.
  • The Arianespace commercial launch consortium on June 18 said it is asking European governments for $40 million or so to design a new structure under the Ariane 5 rocket’s payload fairing to provide more space that may be required of all-electric satellites.
  • The 20-nation European Space Agency in November started a new program, called Electra, to jump-start a European all-electric satellite design with the help of satellite fleet operator SES of Luxembourg.
  • China Aerospace Corp., Lockheed Martin, Space Systems/Loral, Thales Alenia Space all are working on all-electric satellites.

An all-electric satellite dispenses with heavy chemical propulsion and uses electric propulsion not only to maintain itself stably in orbit over 15 years — this has been done by many operators and manufacturers — but also to raise the satellite from where it is dropped into orbit by its carrier rocket to its final destination in geostationary orbit.

Saving all that weight will enable satellite owners to either lower their launch costs or pack more revenue-generating payload onto a satellite for the same launch mass.

The only problem is it takes months, not a couple of weeks, for an all-electric satellite to reach its final operating position.

Blame Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, Calif., for the recent hullabaloo. Boeing signed a contract in March 2012 with fleet operators Satmex of Mexico and Asia Broadcast Satellite of Hong Kong for the first four of its all-electric 702SP satellites.

The Boeing deal was sealed when it was paired with a contract to launch the satellites two at a time aboard the new Falcon 9 rocket operated by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne, Calif. The Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket upgrade, now in development, is scheduled to make its inaugural flight this year.

But not everybody is so smitten. Astrium Satellites Chief Executive Eric Beranger said he is excited about all-electric satellites, but not enormously so. In a press briefing here June 19 during the Paris Air Show, Beranger said Astrium has already built seven commercial telecommunications satellites with electric-powered propulsion for in-orbit station-keeping.

“Going the extra step to use electric propulsion for orbit-raising is not a huge step,” Beranger said. “We will certainly see more all-electric satellites, but the future will not be all-electric. It’s a tradeoff that operators will make on whether they can wait six months before generating revenue from their asset.”

Beranger said that despite the buzz, “In fact there have not been that many all-electric satellites actually sold in the market,” meaning none since the Boeing Satmex/ABS/Falcon 9 contract 15 months ago.

Nonetheless, Beranger said Astrium Satellites has already integrated an all-electric design into its commercial product list and is waiting for a first customer before completing the relatively modest research and development effort needed to make the product ready for the market.