WASHINGTON — Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems, which booked a headline-grabbing four-satellite order for its new all-electric 702SP satellite design in March 2012 and has gone two years without another commercial order, on March 11 said it would sign a new customer within weeks.
Briefing reporters here during the Satellite 2014 conference, Boeing officials also said they had sold three 702SP satellites to an unidentified U.S. government customer in 2013, an order that presumably allowed the buyer to profit from scale economies by piggybacking on the original four-satellite contract.
One industry official said El Segundo, Calif.-based Boeing has already signed an authorization to proceed with the unidentified commercial customer, and that the coming contract was all but certain.
Boeing’s first 702SP order was with Satmex of Mexico — now renamed Eutelsat Americas following its January purchase by Eutelsat of Paris — and ABS of Hong Kong. Each operator agreed to purchase two satellites.
Jim Simpson, president of Boeing Satellite Systems International, said the four options that were purchased along with the four firm orders expire at the end of this year.
Patricio Northland, chief executive of Eutelsat Americas, said the company is negotiating with Boeing to extend the option deadline to permit his company to validate the 702SP’s performance — or at least its orbit-raising ability — before purchasing more spacecraft.
The first two 702SP satellites — one for Eutelsat Americas and one for ABS — are scheduled for launch aboard a single SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in early 2015. Simpson said that while this represents a slight delay from the original planning, it is within the contract terms calling for delivery between December 2014 and March 2015.
The xenon-ion propulsion system used aboard the 702SP is one of the lighter electric-propulsion technologies on the market, maximizing the weight savings but at a price of lower thrust. The satellites will require between six and eight months to travel from where they are dropped off by the Falcon 9 to final geostationary position.
Russian satellites for decades have been using electric propulsion to maintain their position stably in geostationary orbit. Typically these satellites have launched aboard the heavy-lift Proton rocket, which can carry them directly to final geostationary position.
But the Russian Satellite Communications Co. of Moscow recently experimented with using electric propulsion to perform the full orbit-raising task. RSCC’s Express-AM5, launched aboard a Proton in December, reached its final operating position only in March as it used its electric thrusters to perform the orbit-raising maneuver.
Andrey Kirillovich, RSCC’s director for integration services and turnkey projects, said March 13 that the satellite’s thrusters performed as designed. He said Express-AM5, whose payload was provided by MDA Corp. of Canada with a platform built by ISS Reshetnev of Russia, is in good health at its operation location at 140 degrees east.
Despite their advantages, and notwithstanding Boeing’s pending contract, electric satellites have yet to fully catch on with commercial operators. A key reason is that these companies are often unwilling to wait six to eight months — as opposed to a week — after a satellite’s launch for it to begin generating revenue, said David W. Thompson, chief executive of manufacturer Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va.
Speaking at the conference, Thompson said Orbital’s new GeoStar-3 satellite product, which offers a 60 percent increase in power and a one-third increase in payload mass compared with the GeoStar-2, will use electric power for in-orbit station keeping but not for orbit-raising.
A different electric-power propulsion system, the SPT-140, being offered by manufacturer Space Systems/Loral promises to gets satellites to geostationary orbit a bit more quickly than Boeing’s system — but still slower than some operators would prefer.
Satellite operators are also concerned that should they wish to move their in-orbit satellites from one slot to another during the satellites’ 15- to 20-year service lives, the maneuver would take much longer with electric propulsion.
Space Systems/Loral President John Celli said the industry is most likely to settle on a hybrid solution that saves some of the launch mass of a satellite through electric propulsion but retains conventional chemical propellant to speed the arrival of the satellite to final operating position.
Airbus Defence and Space of Europe is offering an all-electric option this year, and Thales Alenia Space will have an all-electric product starting in 2016. Lockheed Martin Space Systems has its own all-electric design, which offers a quicker delivery to geostationary orbit but uses a heavier electric propulsion system.
ABS Chief Executive Thomas Choi said he has no regrets about being an inaugural customer for the 702SP.
Choi said the two Falcon 9 rockets that will launch the four ABS and Eutelsat Americas satellites were purchased for less than $60 million each. He said the cost of the ABS-3A satellite, to be launched in early 2015, plus the cost of the launcher will enable ABS to deliver a 36-megahertz-equivalent transponder into orbit for $1.75 million.
Choi said seeking innovative satellite and launcher configurations is an absolute must for the satellite industry if it expects to remain competitive against terrestrial technologies.