Intelsat revises IS-29e replacement plan, preps second-gen Epic order

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WASHINGTON — Intelsat has abandoned plans to order a one-for-one replacement for the Intelsat-29e satellite that failed last year and will rely instead on leased capacity, a borrowed satellite, and the newly ordered Intelsat-40e spacecraft to fill a coverage gap over North and South America. 

Intelsat said last summer it intended to award a contract by the end of 2019 for a direct replacement for the three-year-old Intelsat-29e satellite. The global satellite fleet operator now says the Intelsat-40e satellite recently ordered from Maxar Technologies will serve as a partial replacement for IS-29e. The rest of the gap will be covered by a borrowed Hispasat satellite and capacity leased from competitor SES and other satellite operators.

Intelsat-29e was the first Epic-series high-throughput satellite in Intelsat’s fleet, and carried 10 times the capacity of earlier satellites. Its mission came to an abrupt end in April when it suffered a catastrophic fuel leak Intelsat still believes was caused by a micrometeoroid impact or an ill-timed electrostatic discharge triggered by unfavorable solar weather. 

Jean-Luc Froeliger, Intelsat’s vice president of satellite operations and engineering, said Intelsat-29e covered both American continents, but the majority of its capacity was over South America.

 Intelsat-40e, in contrast, will concentrate a large amount of capacity over North America. “There was never a high-throughput satellite dedicated to North America” in Intelsat’s fleet, Froeliger said in a Feb. 7 interview. “This is the role Intelsat-40e is playing.”

Froeliger said market conditions have changed since Intelsat ordered Intelsat-29e from Boeing in 2012. The North American market now has greater demand for inflight connectivity, which Intelsat-40e will serve, he said. 

Froeliger said Intelsat-40e will have more capacity than any of Intelsat’s other 50 satellites, but declined to give a specific amount. He said the company should soon announce a launch provider to ensure the satellite reaches orbit in 2022. 

Intelsat is borrowing Hispasat-143W-1, an 18-year-old satellite formerly known as Hispasat-1D, to replace some lost Intelsat-29e capacity, Froeliger said. Intelsat spokesperson Meghan Macdonald and Hispasat spokesperson Iñaki Latasa Errecart declined to say when Intelsat will begin using the borrowed satellite or how long the lease will last. 

Second-generation Epic network takes shape

Froeliger said Intelsat is preparing to order the first in a series of software-defined satellites that will mark the beginning of its second-generation Epic network. 

“We hope to procure it this year,” Froeliger said. “It will be most likely more than one satellite that we’ll procure from the get-go.”

Those satellites will have the ability to shift bandwidth, power and coverage, he said, allowing Intelsat to respond more quickly to customer needs. 

Froeliger said Intelsat-40e, a roughly six-ton satellite with chemical propulsion, is needed in orbit too soon to design it around software-defined payloads that can be readily reprogramed in orbit.

He said if Intelsat orders any more high-throughput satellites without software-defined payloads, the company would consider buying so-called small GEOs — a new category of geostationary communications satellite that weighs a small fraction of traditional multi-ton GEO satellites.

“There might be an opportunity for a much smaller Epic satellite, maybe for a regional market,” he said. “But in terms of large GEO Epic satellites, we’re moving to the software-defined satellites.”

Froeliger said GEOs weighing less than 1,500 kilograms could be cheap enough to justify ordering if Intelsat identifies a national or regional market where a normal multi-ton satellite would be “overkill.”