Emerging National Operators Help Drive Satellite Manufacturing Business

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PARIS — The determination of Bulgaria and Afghanistan to have their own telecommunications satellites and the long-expected awakening of the Indonesian market were highlights of the commercial satellite market in 2014.

Afghanistan is leasing an in-orbit Eutelsat spacecraft, moving it to 38 degrees east, before ordering its own. But less-developed nations’ continued appetite for their own satellites has been key to the robustness of the global satellite manufacturing market.

Early indications are that 2015 will be another strong order year even if the major fleet operators in Europe and North America are on the down side of their capital spending cycles.

As 2014 ended, the euro was sliding to a nine-year low relative to the U.S. dollar. If this continues, European satellite builders may be able to gain market share from their U.S. counterparts. Two new European players in the geostationary telecommunications market, OHB AG of Germany and Surrey Satellite Technology Limited of Britain, are both debuting new platforms with anchor customers Hispasat and Eutelsat, respectively.

Surprises in 2014 included Dauria Aerospace’s announcement of a two-satellite order for Aniara of India, and Boeing’s inability to capitalize on its first-to-market advantage in all-electric satellites. It turns out that for some prospective customers, the Boeing 702SP all-electric product makes sense only if purchased in pairs to launch together on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets.

Another surprise was Skybox Imaging’s selection of Space Systems/Loral (SSL) of Palo Alto, California, to build out the Skybox high-resolution optical Earth observation constellation.

SSL retained its place as the most successful telecommunications satellite builder in 2014 with nine orders for medium- to large-sized spacecraft, the company’s specialty. SSL’s recent successes include dethroning Lockheed Martin in Japan. Lockheed Martin’s stated intention to return to the commercial market — for the past decade or so it has focused on the U.S. government market — remains, for now, no more than intentions.

With the continued effervescence of emerging markets, it may be surprising that no emerging-market manufacturer has made itself felt in the wider market. Chinese, Indian and Russian manufacturers have been limited mainly to their domestic markets.

That may be changing. Turkey, Brazil, Argentina and others have announced plans to create domestic satellite production facilities in the near-term.

For now, however, and despite the recent successes in Turkey and Qatar of Mitsubishi Electric Co. of Japan, the international commercial market for telecommunications satellites remains largely a U.S. and European affair.