Italian Military Satellite Maneuvered To Hold Orbital Slot for SES-Luxembourg Venture

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PARIS — Satellite fleet operator SES and the Luxembourg government used the Italian Defense Ministry’s aging Sicral 1 telecommunications satellite to protect a regulatory deadline for using an orbital slot and military radio frequencies on behalf of a future Luxembourg satellite venture, according to regulatory filings.

Launched in 2001 and now in an inclined orbit, Sicral 1 was maneuvered in such a way as to register a Luxembourg satellite reservation before a Dec. 18 regulatory deadline.

The use of Sicral 1 was necessary because SES’s Astra 2G satellite, which carries a supplemental payload using the military Ka- and X-band frequencies that Luxembourg plans to develop, was late in being launched and did not arrive at the Luxembourg-registered slot until early January after its Dec. 28 launch aboard a Russian Proton rocket.

In a Dec. 15 submission to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the Geneva-based United Nations agency that regulates orbital slots and broadcast frequencies, the Luxembourg government said it already had begun broadcasting in the military frequencies reserved for a satellite carrying the ITU label LUX-G6-6. The regulatory deadline for the start of service at 21.5 degrees east was Dec. 18.

The Luxembourg government now refers to its military satellite program with SES as GovSat.

Luxembourg-based SES on Jan. 13 said its planned joint venture with the Luxembourg government would contract a satellite carrying military Ka- and X-band frequencies in time for a launch in 2017.

Breaking a monthslong silence on the GovSat program, SES confirmed figures previously announced by Luxembourg government officials: Each partner would invest 50 million euros ($60 million) in the joint venture, which subsequently would take out 125 million euros in loans from Luxembourg banks to finance the program.

SES spokesman Yves Feltes declined to detail how GovSat was able to keep its ITU reservation despite the fact that Astra 2G was not launched until after the mid-December deadline. Feltes said the joint venture’s plans are in full conformance with ITU regulations and that Astra 2G is now at the planned orbital position and broadcasting in the intended frequencies.

The ITU submission suggests that Luxembourg and the Italian government had reached an understanding about the future use of Sicral 1 as a placeholder in November 2008.

It was not clear when Sicral 1 was stationed at the Luxembourg slot, if at all, or for how long. Sicral 1 was one of numerous satellites that, starting in 2013, were removed from publicly accessible satellite tracking websites that for the most part use data provided by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network of ground- and space-based sensors.

The Luxembourg filing was for a slot at 21.5 degrees east. Sicral 1 spent most of its service life at 16 degrees east. But since it was placed into a fuel-saving mode, it has been spotted by amateur satellite trackers, using less-precise optical telescopes, at several orbital slots.

Astra 2G, built by Airbus Defence and Space, was not expected to spend more than three months at the 21.5-degree slot to be used for GovSat. ITU rules specify that a given orbital reservation may be satisfied if a satellite is stationed there, using the registered frequencies, for three months or more.

Carrying 62 Ku-band and four Ka-band transponders, Astra 2G will be moved to its nominal operating position of 28.2/28.5 degrees east, where it will serve as a backup to existing SES commercial telecommunications satellites.
Airbus on Jan. 12 said Astra 2G was healthy in orbit, had completed initial testing and had been formally transferred to SES control.

Neither SES nor Airbus had ever mentioned the placeholder military payload on Astra 2G until the Luxembourg government neared final approval of the GovSat joint venture in late 2014.