PARIS — Satellite fleet operator SES, satellite manufacturer OHB SE and the European Space Agency on March 11 signed the go-ahead contract to produce a lightweight, all-electric commercial telecommunications satellite platform called Electra.

While it was highly innovative when first decided in 2012, Electra has fallen at least three years behind schedule and is now targeting a 2021 inaugural launch. In the time since its inception, commercial all-electric satellites have entered into regular production, although only one – Boeing’s 702SP, which is already in service with two satellites – is in Electra’s weight class.

Electra is designed to fill a market niche for satellites weighing 3,000 kilograms or less at launch. It is the latest in ESA’s public-private partnerships, designed to help Europe’s commercial satellite sector to remain competitive in the international market.

The Electra program is organized as a contract between the 22-nation ESA and Luxembourg-based SES and valued at 149 million euros ($163 million). SES subsequently is contracting with Bremen, Germany-based OHB, which will adapt its existing SmallGEO satellite platform to the all-electric requirements of Electra, for Electra’s construction.

SES and OHB will be contributing their own resources to the program. Neither company would disclose its investment but the total Electra cost, including the cost of launching an inaugural mission in 2021, is expected to be 200 million euros or more.

“Electric propulsion is poised to inject increased competitiveness into the satellite industry,” SES Chief Technology Officer Martin Halliwell said in a statement. “SES is pleased to trigger this Electra initiative and to establish a strong relationship with ESA.”

Until recently, commercial fleet operators and ESA had few dealings with each other. But the agency has refocused its ARTES program on telecommunications research toward near-term applications under Telecommunications Director Magali Vaissiere. The increase in contributions to ESA by commercially minded governments including Luxembourg and Britain has also been a factor.

ESA has established commercial telecommunications satellite co-funded efforts with Eutelsat of Paris, Inmarsat of London and Intelsat of Luxembourg and McLean, Virginia, in recent years as well as with all three European satellite prime contractors — Airbus Defence and Space, Thales Alenia Space and OHB.

Electra was decided in November 2012 during a conference of ESA government ministers. When the early contracts for Electra were signed in 2013 with SES and OHB, the program was targeting a launch in 2018.

SES’s involvement is based in part on the Luxembourg government’s financial contribution to the ESA package. The German government, through the German Aerospace Center, DLR, is also a major contributor, which is why OHB has won the contract to build the first Electra.

ESA’s 149-million-euro contribution includes not only the Electra platform, but also partial financing of the inaugural mission’s payload – which SES will determine – and its launch, the agency said in response to SpaceNews inquiries.

Using electric propulsion for both in-orbit station-keeping maneuvers and the fuel-intensive orbit-raising after separation from its launch vehicle, the Electra satellite is intended to fill a gap in the all-electric satellite products offered by builders of large telecommunications satellites.

OHB is already under contract to ESA and to satellite fleet operator Hispasat of Spain to produce the first SmallGEO satellite. Hispasat calls this satellite Hispasat 36W-1. Also known as Hispasat AG1, it is scheduled for launch in 2016 aboard a European Ariane 5 rocket.

Hispasat 36W-1 uses chemical propulsion to climb into final geostationary position after separation from the rocket, and then an OHB Sweden-provided electric propulsion system for in-orbit maneuvers over its 15-year lifespan. It is expected to weigh 3,200 kilograms at launch and would weigh less than 3,000 kilograms in an Electra configuration.

OHB Sweden is providing the electric propulsion system for Electra as well.

In response to SpaceNews inquiries, OHB said it had begun the procurement process for a new-generation Hall-Effect Thruster for Electra, and that the competing suppliers are Fakel of Russia, Safran/Snecma of France and Aerojet of the United States, which has a subsidiary, called European Space Propulsion, in Ireland.

“The partnership with the world’s largest satellite operator, SES, on the one hand and the support of ESA and its Member States, particularly Germany, on the other, will open up excellent possibilities for us, allowing us to assert ourselves in this attractive market,” OHB Chief Executive Marco R. Fuchs said in a statement.

“The fully electric GEO platform is a strategic product for OHB, whose importance for future contracts goes substantially beyond the telecommunications segment,” Fuchs said.

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.