RSCC planning four satellites to cover Russia’s Far North

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Updated May 27 at 2:35 p.m. Eastern to correct information about Express-AM6.

WASHINGTON — Russian Satellite Communications Co. (RSCC) plans to add arctic coverage to its fleet by ordering four satellites for highly elliptical orbits later this year.

Yuri Prokhorov, RSCC’s chief executive, said the company wants to have the satellites in orbit in 2024 to provide Ku-band coverage to Russia’s Far North, a vast region beyond the reach of the state-owned satellite operator’s 10 geostationary satellites. The elliptical orbit satellites, called Express-RVs, will extend RSCC’s coverage deep into the Arctic Circle, he said by email. 

“We consider Express-RV system and our [geosynchronous] satellites as a single constellation, which is quite enough to satisfy the demand for satellite communication services from both fixed and mobile users (including aerial and maritime ones) within Russia and the entire Arctic zone,” Prokhorov said. The satellites’ elliptical orbits will enable RSCC to deliver communications services north of the 76th parallel, he said.

RSCC is Russia’s largest geostationary communications satellite operator. In 2019, RSCC generated 12.3 billion rubles ($174 million) in revenue, Prokhorov said, with a net profit of 4.8 billion rubles.

Prokhorov said RSCC considers bids from Russian and international manufacturers, though most of the operator’s fleet has been domestically built. Russia’s primary satellite manufacturer, ISS Reshetnev, built eight of RSCC’s 10 satellites with international partners — Thales Alenia Space often supplied payloads — with the other two built by Airbus Defence and Space. 

Near-term fleet expansion

RSCC has four geostationary satellites slated to launch before the elliptical orbit satellites. The first two, Express-80 and Express-103, were scheduled to launch together on a Proton rocket in March, but were delayed to the second half of 2020 because of technical issues with their rocket, Prokhorov said.

A second pair, Express-AMU3 and Express-AMU7, are slated to launch on a Proton rocket in 2021, he said. 

RSCC is recovering from the partial loss of Express-AM6, having shut off the Ka-band payload on the five-year-old satellite  in March because of a thermal control system malfunction with the spacecraft. Prokhorov said RSCC retained 85% of the satellite’s Ka-band customers. Most were transferred to the company’s  Express-AMU1 and Express-AM5 satellites, which had some overlapping coverage with the unusable payload, he said.

Coronavirus changes

Prokhorov said the coronavirus pandemic has caused drastic shifts in customer patterns at RSCC. Maritime connectivity was RSCC’s fastest growing sector at the beginning of the year, but television broadcast viewership jumped by more than 30% this spring as people stayed at home to slow the disease’s spread, he said. 

Prokhorov said the transportation and tourism industries have been left “high and dry” by the pandemic, while demand has surged for distance learning and corporate teleworking solutions. 

“It is psychologically difficult to realize the lightning speed and shift in the main vectors in the industry development within three months,” he said. 

Prokhorov said he is not sure the impact these changes will have on demand levels for satellite communications services in the coming years. 

“Some services will remain in great demand after the pandemic restrictions are lifted, but it’s hard to say at present which ones,” he said. 

About 50% of RSCC’s revenue comes from domestic customers in Russia, he said. RSCC has interest in growing more internationally, but Prokhorov said the pandemic makes international sales difficult. 

“Life goes on, so we keep working for the future,” he said.