Arabsat Orders U.S. Satellites — with a Side of Know-how

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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — The Saudi Arabian government’s two-satellite purchase order with Lockheed Martin is the latest in a series of international satellite contracts where the buyer insists on help creating a domestic satellite industry.

Gone, at least for now, are the days when export contract offsets meant one-off purchase agreements or limited-duration work for the locals. The current trend — in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Brazil and Peru are recent examples — features a demand by the purchasing governments that a sustainable local satellite industry be stood up, almost from nothing.

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) announced April 28 that they had contracted with Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver to build two telecommunications satellites.

The contract includes a commitment by Lockheed to create a joint-venture company with Taqnia Space Co., a unit of the Saudi Technology Investment and Development Co., to build, assemble and integrate satellites on Saudi territory through a limited-liability company.

Arabsat 6a and Hellas-sat4
Arabsat 6a (left) and Hellas-sat4. Credit: Lockheed Martin

“We believe this partnership will serve as a platform for commercialization of innovations in future satellite systems in the Middle East and North Africa region,” Taqnia Space Co. Chief Executive Abdullah Alosaimi said in a statement.

The satellites will be owned and operated by Riyadh, Saudi Arabia-based Arabsat as part of a $650 million investment that includes the satellites’ launches — one by Europe’s Arianespace, the other by SpaceX of California — as well as insurance. Both are scheduled to be in orbit in 2018.

Arabsat said the contract with SpaceX had not yet been signed but was imminent.

The Arabsat launch decision is of a piece with the current commercial launch market, which for the past year or so has become an Arianespace and SpaceX duopoly.

The two-satellite contract with Lockheed is the first visible payoff from the company’s effort to make its A2100 satellite frame more competitive on cost and schedule.

Falcon Heavy
SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is slated to launch Arabsat 6A. Credit: SpaceX

One of the satellites, Arabsat 6A, will add to Arabsat’s existing fleet and operate from 30.5 degrees east. A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, whose inaugural flight is scheduled for late this year, is the designated launch vehicle, an industry official said.

The other satellite, Hellas-sat-4/SaudiGeoSat-1, will be used by Arabsat-owned Hellas Sat of Greece at 39 degrees east. It will be launched by Evry, France-based Arianespace’s Ariane 5 rocket. Arianespace said the satellite is expected to weigh 6,000 kilograms at launch.

The contracts end a long dry spell for Lockheed, whose officials have said repeatedly that they would reduce the cost and delivery time of the company’s A2100 satellite frame to return to a competitive position in the commercial satellite market. The Arabsat deal is the first visible payoff from that effort.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems spokesman Matt Kramer said several A2100 modifications are featured on the Hellas-sat-4/SaudiGeoSat-1, including flexible solar arrays offering an improved power-to-mass ratio and lower relative cost.

In addition, the Hellas-sat-4 will carry a reprogrammable processor to allow its owner “to modify satellite configurations in orbit and adjust satellite-to-ground communications.”

Hellas-Sat-4 will use both chemical and Hall Current Thruster electric propulsion to climb to geostationary-orbit position after launch, and then electric-only for station-keeping for its orbital life.

Arabsat 6A will use conventional chemical propellant for both orbit raising and station-keeping.

The 21-nation Arabsat consortium is in an expansion phase. It had earlier said it would conclude a three-satellite order by early this year before delaying the third. Arabsat Chief Executive Khalid Balkheyour said the third satellite is still being planned but would be separated from the current order.