BORDEAUX, France — European government officials who have spent a decade financing satellite electric propulsion work said they are determined not to let Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems take a permanent lead in all-electric commercial satellites.

El Segundo, Calif.-based Boeing in March signed a contract to build four all-electric commercial telecommunications satellites for Asian and Mexican satellite fleet operators.

The four satellites will be built for slightly less than $100 million each for Asia Broadcast Satellite of Hong Kong and Mexico’s Satmex, industry officials said. The satellites feature a design that uses electric propulsion not only for maintaining position once in geostationary orbit — many commercial satellites already have this feature — but also for raising themselves into final position from their launch vehicle drop-off point.

The result, Boeing has said, is that 6-kilowatt satellites that normally would weigh 4,000 kilograms at launch will weigh around 2,000 kilograms, meaning they can be launched two at a time aboard a Falcon 9 rocket under development by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif. 

The Boeing announcement was quickly followed by statements from SES of Luxembourg, the world’s second-largest commercial satellite fleet operator, that it is likely to purchase a similar spacecraft in the coming months.

European government officials attending the Space Propulsion 2012 conference here the week of May 7 made clear they understood the competitive threat posed by the Boeing deal and would not stand still while it develops.

Jose Gonzalez delAmo, head of the electric propulsion department at the European Space Agency (ESA), said ESA governments would be asked to fund additional electric-propulsion development when they meet in November to determine Europe’s future direction in space investment.

Hoping to stimulate their domestic industrial base, several individual ESA governments have invested in electric propulsion over the years, resulting in competing designs having been flown on different government and commercial missions.

These missions include ESA’s Smart satellite, sent to lunar orbit, and the agency’s Artemis technology demonstration satellite, whose mission was salvaged by the presence of electric thrusters after a failure of the conventional propellant system. More recently, the U.S. Air Force’s AEHF-1 secure telecommunications satellite was saved from a similar failure, in part by deft use of electric propulsion.

Astrium Satellites has placed electric thrusters on a half-dozen of its commercial telecommunications satellites, but only for station-keeping.

David Bair, chief technical officer for Paris-based Eutelsat, the world’s third-largest commercial fleet operator and a company not known for accepting experimental technologies on its satellites, said Eutelsat is sold on the appeal of an all-electric design.

“The design is more complex than with chemical propellant, and the drawback of an all-electric satellite is that it takes six months to get to geostationary orbit,” Bair said during the conference, organized by the Aeronautical and Astronautic Association of France (3AF). “But you could make up for this with a lower-cost launch. The hardware is more expensive, but it’s worth it.”

Bair said propellant accounts for 55 percent of the weight of a typical large telecommunications satellite. The associated propulsion hardware brings the total to 60 percent.

The three main cost components of putting a telecommunications satellite into orbit are the satellite itself, which can be between 45 and 65 percent of the total; the launch service, which can be 25 to 45 percent; and insurance, which is typically around 10 percent, Bair said.

Depending on the launch options available, a satellite operator could save between $50 million and $60 million in launch costs by opting for an all-electric design as opposed to an all-chemical-propulsion design, Bair said.

Gonzalez delAmo said ESA’s New-Generation Platform project, which will help industry design a commercial telecommunications satellite platform, incorporates an option for using electric propulsion for both station-keeping and orbit-raising.

“The Boeing design uses 150 kilograms of xenon instead of around 1,650 kilograms of hydrazine,” Gonzalez delAmo said. “The satellites cost about $100 million each, and at launch weigh around 2,000 kilograms.

“You can launch two at a time aboard Falcon 9, which costs $50 million. This means that for around $125 million you have a 6-kilowatt satellite in orbit. Europe needs to keep up with this.”

SpaceX currently advertises Falcon 9 at $54 million per launch.



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