Fleet Operators Cautiously Optimistic About New All-electric Satellite Line

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PARIS — Mid-size satellite fleet operators reacted with cautious optimism to the news that two small fleet owners had joined forces to purchase four all-electric-power commercial telecommunications spacecraft.

These companies said they welcomed the fact that Asia Broadcast Satellite (ABS) of Hong Kong and Satmex of Mexico had found a way to combine their separate procurements into a single order that permitted Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, Calif., to begin production of a new commercial product line.

Boeing will build four 702 SP satellites for launch in 2014 and 2015 under the ABS/Satmex order.

New technology has historically been viewed with suspicion by satellite fleet operators, who rarely insure their satellites against the risk of a loss of revenue beyond the value of the satellite and the launch vehicle that carried it into orbit.

In addition to the aversion to untested hardware, satellite operators generally want their satellites — costing $200 million to $300 million including launch — to be in service and generating revenue as soon as possible. With conventional chemical propulsion, this means just a few weeks from launch to commercial service.

With electric propulsion used to raise the satellite from its drop-off point to final geostationary position, the maneuver can take several months.

“Small and midsize operators have an issue with risk compared to the bigger operators,” said Lincoln Oliveira, general director of Star One of Brazil. “For us a failure has a bigger impact. So it is hard for us to take risks” with new technologies, whether they have been satellites or new rockets.

In March 15 remarks to the Satellite 2012 conference, organized in Washington by Access Intelligence LLC, Oliveira noted that, up until 15 years ago, Boeing offered a satellite platform that weighed 1,500 kilograms or so at launch and filled a market niche. Current commercial satellite platforms are mainly for 3,000-kilogram satellites or more, with fuel accounting for around 50 percent of the launch weight.

“We used six of them,” Oliveira said of Boeing’s former small satellite product line. “Now they are coming back and offering a new option for small satellites. This is a good thing, to have a manufacturer offering a satellite in the 3-ton class or less. If we can fit 48 transponders on a satellite weighing 1,500 kilograms or so, that will be very attractive. We could use a smaller launcher, or share a larger one with other customers.”

Oliveira said the new Boeing product, which several other satellite builders are expected to imitate in the coming years, could also mean that Brazil’s future VLS rocket, or the Brazilian plan to operate the Ukrainian Cyclone rocket from Brazil’s Alcantara launch base, could capture more business.

For ABS and Satmex, the purchase of Boeing’s 702 SP means the two companies can divide the costs of a single Falcon 9 rocket operated by Space Exploration Technologies of Hawthorne, Calif. If the same satellites had conventional propellant, they would weigh about 4,000 kilograms each. With the all-electric design, each satellite will weigh around 1,800 kilograms.

Khalid Balkheyour, chief executive of the 21-nation Arabsat consortium of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said his company will watch closely the development of all-electric satellites before purchasing.

“We care about heritage and flight-proven technology,” Balkheyour said. “We cannot use experimental technology. It has to be credible before we buy, and we need to see it proven. So we would like to see at least one demonstration in orbit, and we will evaluate it then.”

Yutaka Nagai, senior executive vice president for Japan’s Sky Perfect JSat Corp., said the all-electric design has advantages over chemical propulsion but that “we would need to see it operating over a number of years” before ordering one for the company’s fleet.

It took years before the major fleet operators adopted electric propulsion for use only to provide for their satellites’ in-orbit station-keeping — the minor maneuvers needed to keep the spacecraft in place and correctly pointed — even though the technology had been used for decades in Russia. Similarly, the adoption of lithium-ion batteries for commercial satellites was a slow process because of satellite owners’ reluctance to change.