Falcon 9 launch the final leg of Indonesian satellite’s roundabout journey

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WASHINGTON — The Indonesian communications satellite that is SpaceX’s primary payload for its second Falcon 9 launch this year overcame a change of manufacturers and the loss of a U.S. Ex-Im Bank loan to reach the launch pad.

Set to launch Feb. 21 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, as part of a mission that includes an Israeli lunar lander and an experimental Air Force smallsat, Nusantara Satu, also known as PSN 6, is the first new satellite for the Indonesian satellite operator Pasifik Satelit Nusantara (PSN) in a decade.

PSN originally hired Boeing to build the satellite, which replaces AsiaSat-3S — a borrowed satellite rebranded as PSN-5 — but ended up switching the contract to Space Systems Loral (SSL) in 2014. PSN encountered another setback when it was forced to find a new source of export-credit funding after the U.S. Congress let the Export-Import Bank’s charter expire in 2015.

“We were already nine months through the process when they shut down,” Adi Rahman Adiwoso, PSN CEO, said in an interview. “I was not very happy. We spent money, time and effort, and just wasted it.” 

Nusantara Satu with rideshare on top
Nusantara Satu and rideshare payloads shown during encapsulation prior to launch. Credit: SSL

Adiwoso said PSN turned to Export Development Canada to finish financing Nusantara Satu — aided by the fact that MDA Corp., SSL’s parent company at the time, was based in Canada — but that the whole process pushed the satellite’s delivery out one year.

SSL spokesperson Wendy Lewis said the company started production, but put Nusantara Satu in storage while PSN’s export credit was worked out.

PSN is in the middle of replacing PSN-5 and Palapa-D, the one satellite it fully owns. China Great Wall Industry Corp. is building Nusantara Satu-2 (formerly Palapa-N1), a joint-venture satellite PSN has with Indosat Ooredoo that is scheduled to launch in April 2020 on a Chinese Long March 3B rocket. 

The company has been relying on capacity leases from other satellite operators to serve its customers. Adiwoso said PSN is leasing capacity from roughly a half a dozen satellite operators, including AsiaSat, LaoSat and Indosat Ooredoo, while waiting for Nusantara Satu to launch. PSN originally anticipated the satellite would launch in 2017.

“[Nusantara] Satu will be quite full by the time we migrate all of the traffic,” he said.

PSN originally selected Boeing to build Nusantara Satu in 2014, but canceled the deal after Boeing was unable to pair the satellite with another customer for a Falcon 9 dual launch.

Space Systems Loral was then given the contract and took on responsibility for buying a launch and finding a co-passenger.

SpaceX rarely launches more than one satellite at a time to geostationary transfer orbit, but Boeing’s success in 2012 lining up four all-electric satellites — two for ABS and two for Satmex (now Eutelsat) — was viewed as a promising template for low-cost launch. No satellite operators have replicated that deal.

David Bernstein, SSL’s senior vice president of program management, said SSL was able to offset launch costs by working with Spaceflight Inc., which secured two rideshares that will launch with Nusantara Satu. He said Spaceflight is paying SSL to launch the Israeli lunar lander Beresheet for SpaceIL, a former Google Lunar X Prize contender, and an Air Force Research Laboratory smallsat.

Those two spacecraft are riding onboard Nusantara Satu, and will separate from the satellite using techniques SSL developed as part of DARPA’s Payload Orbital Delivery System experiment, Bernstein said. SSL deployed a secret DARPA smallsat from Hispasat 30W-6 last year using the PODS system.

“It’s somewhat different technology, but it’s a lot of the same principles and a lot of the things we learned when we launched that about a year ago,” he said. “A lot of the things we learned along the way and started to put in place were brought forward to this activity.

Bernstein said all three payloads — Nusantara Satu, the Beresheet lander and the Air Force smallsat — plus their dispensers have a combined mass of 4,850 kilograms, with Nusantara Satu weighing 4,100 kilograms of that total.

Bernstein said SSL is working with Spaceflight on “several opportunities” for similar rideshare missions aboard satellites headed to geostationary orbit.

Bernstein said Nusantara Satu was built in 26-27 months, and didn’t experience any setbacks from SSL layoffs in 2017 and 2018, or from defective third-party components discovered in other satellites under construction.

Adiwoso confirmed Nusantara Satu didn’t experience any troubles.

“The technical team is still very good” at SSL, he said. SSL’s parent company Maxar has been positioning to sell the company’s geostationary communications satellite business, but said in December that it “continues to be actively engaged with its customers to procure additional GEO satellite orders.”

Adiwoso said 70 to 75 percent of the capacity on Nusantara Satu is already sold. The Indonesian government will use half of the satellite’s capacity, he said.

While PSN is eager to have the new satellite in orbit, Adiwoso said the company now feels it should have added much more high-throughput capacity.

“At the time we were quite concerned with if it would be absorbed or not. In hindsight, we should have built it 10 times bigger than what we are doing now,” he said.

Adiwoso said PSN has rolled out Wi-Fi hotspots in 3,000 villages across Indonesia, bringing internet access within range of approximately 1.5 million people. Once Nusantara Satu enters service in April, PSN will use the satellite to reach another 10,000 villages, bringing connectivity within range of 5 million people by the end of the year, he said.

Adiwoso estimated the company should be able to connect 12 million to 13 million people by the end of 2020, when Nusantara Satu-2 is in orbit. 

Going forward, Adiwoso said PSN is willing to explore the use of Ka-band, a frequency often used for broadband but is more sensitive to rain fade, for future satellites.