This story was updated Jan. 20, 2017 at 9:15 a.m. EST.
WASHINGTON — Spacecraft builder OHB System AG says it is taking steps to rein in the production time for its SmallGEO line of satellites to around three years instead of the seven years the first has taken.
Spanish satellite fleet operator Hispasat, which signed a contract at the 2009 Paris Air Show to be OHB’s inaugural customer for a satellite design financed by the German and European space agencies, has been waiting more than seven years for Hispasat 36W-1 to lift off, an event now scheduled for Jan. 27 aboard a Europeanized Soyuz rocket. That’s a four-year delay that Hispasat Chief Executive Carlos Espinós said would have been longer if launch provider Arianespace had not been able to switch the satellite from Ariane 5, its originally intended ride.
Bremen, Germany-based OHB has a total of nine SmallGEO satellites under contract with a possible tenth on order from the German government for Heinrich Hertz, a civil-military telecommunications satellite that has struggled for funding. All of the satellites are behind schedule; none have launched.
Andreas Lindenthal, a board member of OHB System AG, said Jan. 18 during a press conference with the European Space Agency that the company’s new strategy is to work with customers to better define the telecommunications payload concurrently with flight hardware production.
Lindenthal said this approach targets having a “three-year [manufacturing] period up to launching the satellite,” adding that a three-year time frame should enable OHB to pursue a “variety of potential different missions.”
Hispasat-36W-1’s manufacturing time took longer not only because it is using an entirely new platform, but because of technical difficulties during integration, he said. As a result of the growing pains that came with the first SmallGEO, Lindenthal said OHB has identified several ways to expedite future projects at the satellite, subsystem and component levels, namely by taking the successful practices from Hispasat-36W-1 and repeating them for future spacecraft.
“Commonality is something which we have been able to demonstrate. We are able to introduce that across the disciplines into the various programs,” he said. “This is for sure the future.”
OHB mainly has built satellites for European government programs, but has long eyed the telecommunications market as a growth area for a company that had hopes of hitting 750 million euros in revenue for the year just ended. OHB sees SmallGEO — a lightweight 2,500 to 3,500 kilogram satellite capable of chemical, electrical and hybrid propulsion — as the key to unlocking this market
The German Aerospace Center, or DLR, led the early studies on SmallGEO, and then handed the reins to ESA when the 22-nation agency signed a development contract with OHB. SmallGEO is part of ESA’s Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems (ARTES) program as a public-private partnership.
Including Hispasat-36W-1, OHB has nine SmallGEO projects on order, along with a possible tenth, Heinrich Hertz, from the German government. ESA’s second European Data Relay Satellite, EDRS-C, is based on OHB’s SmallGEO. EDRS-C also carries the commercial Hylas 3 payload for British satellite operator Avanti Communications. That satellite was supposed to launch on an Ariane 5 early this year, but is now anticipated in October.
OHB’s third SmallGEO order, an all-electric variant for SES called Electra, is also substantially behind its original schedule. The first contract signing between SES and OHB took place in 2013, with a projected launch in 2018, but the actual go-ahead contract, which included ESA, wasn’t signed until March of 2016. OHB expects it to take five years to complete and launch the satellite in 2021.
The other six SmallGEO platforms are booked for the Meteosat Third Generation (MTG) weather satellites, for which Thales Alenia Space is the prime contractor. The MTG satellites were supposed to start launching in 2017, but Eumetsat now has 2021 on their website.
Magali Vaissiere, ESA’s director of telecommunications and integrated applications, defended the agency’s commitment to fund research and development for European industry, arguing that it is necessary to assist Europe in staying competitive with the United States.
“The European public sector has a vested interest in supported partnerships between the private sector and ESA as it enables industry to take more risks and invest in new products and solutions, and in a way accelerate their introduction on the market,” she said. “Without the equivalent of say, the U.S. Department of Defense injecting vast funding resources into R&D, the European public and private sectors must work together to keep us at the forefront of advanced satellite technology and all the spin-off advantages that come with it.”
Gerd Gruppe, director of space administration at the DLR, said 12 member states invested in SmallGEO, including Germany, Spain, Sweden and Luxembourg. Vaissiere said Spain was the next biggest contributor behind Germany. Tesat-Spacecom of Germany developed the Hispasat-36W-1 payload, which carries 20 Ku-band transponders and up to three Ka-band transponders. Thales Alenia Space España produced the Redsat onboard regenerative processor, and Airbus Defence and Space Spain supplied the active receiver antenna. Espinós said he expects the satellite to enter service in March after a period of testing.