SSC, the former Swedish Space Corp., is the owner of a dizzyingly wide portfolio of technologies and service offerings that include the well-known Esrange sounding rocket and stratospheric balloon launch site, the PrioraNet global network of satellite tracking stations, the Prisma formation-flying satellites and the LSE and Aurora space-service consultancies.
That’s not all. Both on its own and in partnership with the European Space Agency, SSC is developing a new satellite propulsion system that has already been tested in orbit and that the company believes has multiple advantages over the hydrazine propellant used on most satellites.
Another research focus with big potential is a satellite propellant gauge designed to give satellite owners a clear fix on how much fuel is remaining in their fuel tanks. Given the revenue-generating power of an established telecommunications satellite in orbit on the one hand, and the increasing pressure on operators to move their aging satellites to a graveyard orbit — which takes fuel — this technology could find widespread use in the commercial telecommunications satellite sector.
While SSC Chief Executive Lars Persson has sold off some of the company’s assets, he says the current business mix is coherent. The company’s sole shareholder, the Swedish government, is less interested in quarterly performance than in longer-term business success. That longer-term view may come in handy as 2010 revenue was down 6 percent from 2009 and 2011 looks to be flat from last year.
Persson spoke with Space News staff writer Peter B. de Selding June 14, 2011
You have sold your stakes in the Swedish satellite telecommunications operator and in the Spot Image Earth observation company but still have a broad product portfolio. Do you need further divestiture to focus on your core business?
It is a diverse product portfolio, but we are focusing on global satellite services and our Esrange sounding rocket and stratospheric-balloon launching facility as well as the products developed by our subsidiaries ECAPS and NanoSpace, and we think our businesses fit well. For example, our LSE satellite consultancy, and our Aurora consultancy, both are complementary to our satellite ground tracking service business. Customers who use our PrioraNet tracking network often want more of a full service and LSE and Aurora can provide that.
You reported 2010 revenue of 934 million Swedish kronor ($137.7 million), which was down 6 percent from 2009 and featured an operating loss and a large financial gain. How does 2011 look so far?
The 2010 operating loss was mainly an accounting maneuver in which we wrote down certain investments. It was not an indication of a problem of profitability. The financial gain was the proceeds from the Sirius and Spot Image equity sales. We believe 2011 will be flat from 2010, but without the one-time items you saw in 2010, and we believe our profitability will be a little better.
How is your annual revenue divided among the various business lines?
What we call satellite management, which includes the PrioraNet ground network as well as the LSE consultancy, accounts for about 55 percent of our revenue. The Esrange launch facility is about 15 percent. Our space systems businesses, including the Prisma formation-flying and experimental propellant mission, and our airborne maritime surveillance technology, account for the remaining 30 percent.
You are 100 percent owned by the Swedish government. How is the government as a shareholder?
The Swedish government authorities have been very professional. We assemble once a year for the annual meeting and then they let us run the business until the following year. They do not seek to intervene in the running of the business.
In 2009 you completed the purchase of the shares of Universal Space Network (USN) that you did not already own, making you sole owner of the PrioraNet network of satellite tracking stations. USN at the time was doing between $15 million and $20 million in annual business. How has this acquisition turned out?
We are pleased with it and we believe it has very good growth potential. Customers have realized we can deliver a global service. While 2011 will be flat from 2010 in terms of revenue, we think we will see good growth in 2012 and beyond.
The PrioraNet business model assumes governments — even those well established in space operations — will increasingly seek to outsource satellite tracking for Earth observation spacecraft. Is that happening?
It is. It takes time. Established space powers can see the logic of what we’re doing. And new space powers, by using our service, get instant access to a global network. It is much more cost efficient. There are no real reservations on the part of customers, but it can take time to qualify a new antenna that they might need to fully benefit from our network. For some, we can use existing antennas on the network.
You have announced an expansion of the PrioraNet infrastructure with new ground stations being built in the United States — in Florida and California — and in Chile. What is behind this decision?
Our customer demands are increasing. They want Earth observation imagery more quickly and they want a quicker refresh of imagery. Adding ground stations is our way of keeping up with this demand.
The European Commission is organizing a competition to provide the ground network for its Global Monitoring for Environment and Security system of Earth observation satellites. Will you be bidding on this?
The request for proposals for this contract is out and we will of course bid for the work. Exactly who our competitors will be on this I don’t know. But I am sure we will have competitors, and the decision will be made following European Union rules.
The two Prisma formation-flying and technology demonstration satellites have been successful in both mission objectives. What is next for this?
When we completed our Prisma mission objectives we offered to lease the two satellites to another agency and the German space agency, DLR, took over operations for a six-month period. Our understanding of the satellites’ fuel reserve is that the mission could continue well into 2012, so we are talking to others about a similar arrangement after DLR.
The European Space Agency () and several national governments in Europe have expressed interest in developing formation-flying capabilities. But both Sweden and France have cut back on planned missions, and for now Prisma has no successor. What is the status here?
ESA is planning the Proba-3 mission, which now has a Spanish lead, but I do not see the Swedish government making a big investment in this given the government’s financial situation. I believe Sweden will commit a small share to Proba-3 at the next ESA ministerial conference in 2012.
Prisma also demonstrated a new propulsion system that SSC believes one day could replace hydrazine on satellites. Your ECAPS subsidiary, which markets the technology, has sold eight of these High-Performance Green Propulsion (HPGP) engines to Moog Inc. of the United States for an Earth observation constellation. What are the prospects for this technology?
We believe we have demonstrated with Prisma that HPGP should replace hydrazine over time. It is less expensive since it is much easier to handle. There are several space companies that have asked to test the system on the ground. For the moment they have asked that we not identify them.
Another technology one of your subsidiaries, NanoSpace, has developed is a satellite propulsion gauge to give satellite owners more-precise knowledge of the fuel remaining on their spacecraft. What is the status of this?
We are co-financing work on this with ESA and we believe that it should be ready for a flight in 2015 or 2016.
Your Esrange launch facility in northern Sweden is used for high-altitude balloons and for suborbital sounding rockets carrying experiments being prepared for the international space station. Has business there been helped by the agreement to extend the station’s life to at least 2020?
Yes it has and right now we are quite heavily booked at Esrange in the coming year for both sounding rocket campaigns and balloon launches. We are now preparing the first circumpolar flight for launch in late June.