In March, Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems landed one of the more unusual commercial satellite manufacturing orders seen in recent years. The four-satellite package deal involved not one but two customers, located in different hemispheres, and enabled Boeing to launch a new product line that could help change the economics of the industry.
Satmex of Mexico and Asia Broadcast Satellite () of Hong Kong each ordered two Boeing 702SP satellite platforms featuring a revolutionary design that relies exclusively on lightweight electric propulsion systems that can significantly boost the performance-to-weight ratio of geostationary-orbiting spacecraft. Electric engines use an electrical current to excite a gas, typically xenon, creating plasma that is forced through a nozzle to generate thrust.
Today’s geostationary-orbiting spacecraft typically have either conventional chemical propulsion systems or a combination of chemical and electric thrusters for orbit raising and station keeping. Chemical systems are typically used to raise a satellite from the highly elliptical geostationary transfer orbit, which is where most telecom satellites are deposited by their launch vehicles, to its final operating position 36,000 kilometers above the equator.
While chemical thrusters can do the orbit-raising job much more quickly than electric thrusters, they are much bigger and heavier because of the fuel they need to carry. Electric orbit-raising thrusters thus give satellite operators the option of either flying more transponders aboard a satellite in a given weight class or moving down in weight and thus saving money on launch costs.
Commercial communications satellites today typically weigh 3,000 kilograms or more, with fuel accounting for up to 50 percent of the launch weight. The Boeing 702SP platforms ordered by Satmex and ABS, by contrast, are expected to weigh 1,800 kilograms at launch, and the companies plan to launch them two at a time aboard Falcon 9 rockets supplied by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne, Calif.
The person most responsible for pulling the landmark deal together is Craig Cooning, vice president and general manager of Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems, Seal Beach, Calif. With U.S. military spending expected to flatten out or decline in the coming years, Cooning has made a point of capturing more commercial business for Boeing, which once was the dominant commercial satellite manufacturer but in recent years has been more reliant on government contracts.
As regional operators, Satmex and ABS deserve credit for pooling their resources to get a volume discount and for assuming the risk inherent in embracing new technology, which typically is a game only the big operators can play. But the common denominator in this deal is Boeing, which now has a new offering to the industry. Thus Cooning is recognized here.