Boeing Struck First, But it’s Airbus that’s Been Booking the Commercial All-electric Satellite Orders this Year

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Airbus Defence and Space is "the only manufacturer today that has sold electric propulsion for large, high-power satellites,” Eric Beranger, head of the company’s satellite division, said. Credit: Jean-Francois Deroubaix
Airbus Defence and Space is “the only manufacturer today that has sold electric propulsion for large, high-power satellites,” Eric Beranger, head of the company’s satellite division, said. Credit: Jean-Francois Deroubaix

PARIS — French and European governments continue to beat the drum about catching up with the Americans in all-electric telecommunications satellites, but it’s Europe’s Airbus Defence and Space that has taken home the all-electric contracts awarded so far this year.

And for Eric Beranger, head of the company’s satellite division, the more important measure is not the number of satellites — Space Systems/Loral has won more orders than Airbus this year — but their total value that counts most.

“Satellites at 10-kilowatts-of-power-to-the-payload or above are where 50-75 percent of the value is in the commercial telecommunications satellite market,” Beranger said. “And in this segment, we have a 50-percent market share in the 12 months ending in September. We are also the only manufacturer today that has sold electric propulsion for large, high-power satellites.”

Boeing, which made a splash with a four-satellite commercial order in 2012, has booked no new commercial orders for all-electric satellites since. However, Boeing said earlier this year that it won a three-satellite order in 2013 from an undisclosed U.S. government customer.

Two of the four telecommunications satellites sold by Airbus in the past 12 months have been all-electric versions using plasma-electric propulsion from France’s Safran aero-engines builder.

In addition to being all electric, the Eutelsat 172B and SES-12 satellites, respectively for fleet operators Eutelsat of Paris and SES of Luxembourg, illustrate the widening array of choices for satellite operators considering electric propulsion.

Eutelsat 172B, whose mission includes providing Ku-band broadband links to commercial airline passengers, is designed to deliver 11 kilowatts of power to its payload at the end of its 15-year service life — a midrange satellite using this metric. But the addition of plasma-electric propulsion means its launch mass is only 3,500 kilograms, putting it in the small-satellite category in terms of launch options.

Eutelsat 172B will be launched on Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket, in the vehicle’s less-expensive lower berth, reserved for smaller spacecraft.

SES-12, with a Ku- and Ka-band payload totaling some 80 transponders, is designed to provide 19 kilowatts of power and is expected to weigh 5,300 kilograms at launch on a Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Falcon 9 rocket.

Electric propulsion lowers a satellite’s launch mass compared to a chemical-propulsion satellite with the same payload, but electric-propulsion systems cost a bit more than their chemical equivalents. More importantly, they take months to reach their operating orbits, compared to days for chemical propulsion.

Individual satellite owners will examine whether the opportunity cost in waiting for electric-propulsion satellites to reach orbit — four months for Eutelsat 172B, three to six months for SES-12 — outweighs the savings in launch costs.

For some companies, the launch cost savings are what clinches the deal. This is apparently the case for PSN of Indonesia, which has ordered a Boeing 702SP all-electric satellite pending Boeing’s search to find a companion satellite to share a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch. No co-passenger has yet been announced.

In a Sept. 2 interview, Beranger said a year ago around one-quarter of commercial fleet owners in the market for new satellites asked for an all-electric option. That has since grown and is likely to reach 50 percent in the next couple of years.

The remaining 50 percent, he said, are operators whose business plans cannot justify waiting months to get to commercial service.

The 20-nation European Space Agency and the French government starting in 2012 said Europe needed a quick-return government effort to enable its domestic manufacturers to catch up with the U.S. competition — notably Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, California.

It was Boeing that struck first in the commercial all-electric business with a four-satellite order in March 2012 from ABS of Bermuda and Satmex of Mexico, now renamed Eutelsat Americas after Eutelsat’s purchase.

The four satellites will be launched on two Falcon 9 rockets.

ABS and Satmex said at the time that stacking two satellites onto a Falcon 9 was what made the Boeing contract irresistible. But as has been seen in the 2.5 years since then, it is not easy to find customers willing to order the same satellite with the same schedule.

Beranger said that while it would be possible to stack an Airbus all-electric satellite on top of a Boeing spacecraft for a single launch, it would not be easy because of the intimate knowledge each manufacturer would have to have about the other’s spacecraft.