Ariane 5 Lofts Athena-Fidus and ABS’s 1st Built-to-order Satellite

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PARIS — Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket on Feb. 6 placed commercial and military telecommunications satellites into orbit in the first of what operator Arianespace expects could be its busiest-ever year.

Operating from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana, on the northeast coast of South America, the Ariane 5 ECA rocket posted its 58th consecutive success, placing into geostationary transfer orbit the ABS-2 satellite, owned by Asia Broadcast Satellite (ABS) of Hong Kong; and the French-Italian Athena-Fidus Ka- and EHF-band military and civil-government communications satellite.

The builders of both satellites said the spacecraft were healthy in orbit and sending signals.

ABS-2, built by Space Systems Loral of Palo Alto, Calif., weighed 6,330 kilograms at launch and is designed to provide 16.7 kilowatts of power to its payload. The satellite’s construction was financed through a direct loan from the U.S. Export-Import Bank valued at $171.3 million, a figure that includes the cost of insurance brokered by Aon.

ABS-2 will provide telecommunications to a wide territory in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Russia, Central Asia and India. It will operate at 75 degrees east in geostationary orbit.

ABS-2 carries 51 Ku-band, 32 C-band and six Ka-band transponders and is the first satellite built for ABS. The Ka-band payload is aimed at the Middle East, Central Asia, southern Europe and the northeast fringe of Africa.

ABS assembled its current five-satellite fleet, at three orbital slots, since 2006 by purchasing older satellites already in orbit. ABS-2 is the company’s first launch.

Once ABS-2 is operational, it will assume the traffic now handled by ABS-1 at 75 degrees east. ABS-1 will be moved to 159 degrees east and renamed ABS-6, according to ABS. ABS has two satellites — all-electric spacecraft built by Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, Calif. — under construction and scheduled for launch in the next two years.

ABS and Korea Telecom Satellite (KTSat) are now in arbitration proceedings relating to ownership of the ABS-7 satellite, which was sold to ABS under conditions the Korean government has said contravene Korean law.

Korea’s Ministry of Science and Information, Communications and Telecommunication in December ordered KTSat to regain ownership of ABS-7, formerly named Mugungwha-3/Koreasat 3. Government and industry officials said the arbitration proceedings between KTSat and ABS are now principally about what compensation ABS will receive in return for the satellite.

One government official who has been following the dispute said that KTSat “apparently did not inform the Korean government about the sale of the satellite before the transaction was completed.” The sale closed in 2011.

Beyond arguments about the terms of the sale, the Korean government decision on ABS-7/Koreasat 3 could have repercussions on Korea’s access to orbital slots and broadcast frequencies, this official said.

“If Korea is saying the sale to ABS is in effect nullified, then that means the satellite has been without a regulatory ‘home’ for more than two years, and under international frequency rules this could oblige Korea to forfeit its rights to the frequencies,” the official said. “That is the danger here for the Korean administration, because other nations, including China, have a clear interest in getting access to the spectrum.”

ABS Chief Executive Thomas Choi declined to comment on the arbitration. The Korean Ministry of Science did not respond to requests for comment.

Athena-Fidus, built by Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy, weighed 3,080 kilograms at launch and is designed to generate 5 kilowatts of power to its payload. Carrying 23 Ka-band and EHF-band transponders, it will operate at 38 degrees east to provide broadband communications for French and Italian government customers.

Athena-Fidus represents the high-water mark thus far of European collaboration in military satellite telecommunications. France and Italy will be able to operate the satellite separately, but will need to consult each other constantly to assure they avoid interference. The two nations divided the satellite’s 280 million euros ($378 million) in development cost, which includes 180 million euros for the satellite and 100 million euros in launch charges, with France paying 51 percent and Italy 49 percent.

Of the seven steerable beams, France will operate five and Italy, two. The satellite also has two fixed beams, one to cover France and the other, Italy.

The total Athena-Fidus throughput is 3 gigabits per second.

The French and Italian militaries have agreed to divide the cost of the Sicral 2 telecommunications satellite, operating in X- and UHF band, and scheduled for launch later this year. As with Athena-Fidus, each nation will have its own payload while sharing a satellite skeletal structure and launch charges. For Sicral 2, Italy has a majority stake and France the minority.

The French arms procurement agency, DGA, has contracted with a consortium led by Airbus Defence and Space and Actia Sodielec to install and operate the French portion of the Athena-Fidus ground network over 17 years.

Cutbacks in France’s midterm defense spending plan have reduced the number of Athena-Fidus ground stations from 660 to around 350, and the budget to around 80 million euros.

The ground hardware will be installed and operated beginning in April 2014, said Caroline Laurent, director of DGA’s space and operational information systems management unit. Laurent said the French ground system, using Athena-Fidus’ Ka-band capacity, is compatible with the Global Xpress mobile-broadband satellite system being deployed by London-based Inmarsat.