Saft Foresees Satellite Battery Business Holding its Charge

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BOSTON — Satellite battery manufacturer Saft of France and the United States expects the global market for satellite battery systems to remain stable at between $80 million and $100 million per year in the near term, a figure that includes military, civil government and commercial satellites.

Annie Sennet-Cassity, director of space and defense sales at Saft America Inc. of Cockeysville, Md., said that despite some holdouts among U.S. Defense Department programs designed several years ago, the market as a whole has now adopted lithium-ion as the battery technology of choice for satellites for low, medium and geostationary orbits.

It has been seven years since the first lithium-ion battery was launched aboard a geostationary-orbiting satellite. Paris-based Eutelsat’s W3A spacecraft, built by Astrium Satellites, has proved the advantages over nickel-hydrogen batteries and ushered in an era in which more than three-quarters of commercial satellites ordered in recent years now carry lithium-ion.

“You get a kind of virtuous cycle because the more batteries that are ordered, the lower the price gets, and for nickel-hydrogen it works in the opposite way,” Sennet-Cassity said. “The fewer you make, the more expensive each unit is and pretty soon the technology is no longer competitive.”

Saft and competitor EaglePicher Technologies of Joplin, Mo., have battled for business with satellite builder Orbital Sciences Corp. for several years, with Saft winning the most recent round with a multimillion-dollar long-term agreement with Orbital for the Star-2 satellite platform.

In a Sept. 1 interview, Sennet-Cassity said that while the announcement of the Orbital win was on Aug. 25, the contract’s effective date was several months earlier. Saft is currently supplying batteries for satellites under construction by Orbital for satellite operators Avanti Communications of London, the government of Azerbaijan, and the Mexican government under the Boeing-led Mexsat program.

Saft also signed what it called a “multimillion-dollar” contract with Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, Calif., for two larger Boeing-built satellites for the Mexican government, Mexsat-1 and Mexsat-2. Sennet-Cassity said Saft has already delivered more than 20 satellite batteries for Boeing spacecraft. The Boeing tie-in has been a boon for Saft given Boeing’s recent success in winning orders from Intelsat of Luxembourg and Washington, for four satellites; and from Inmarsat of London, for three Ka-band mobile communications satellites.

One of the bigger contracts likely to be presented to satellite battery builders in the coming months will be for Iridium Communications of McLean, Va. Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy is building 81 second-generation Iridium low-orbiting satellites for mobile communications. Selection of a battery manufacturer is expected in the coming weeks.

Saft is providing lithium-ion batteries to the small satellite segment as well, notably 18 second-generation Orbcomm satellites under construction by Sierra Nevada Corp. of Sparks, Nev.

In addition to EaglePicher, Mitsubishi Electric of Japan provides batteries for satellites, and has been a regular supplier to Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif. Loral’s business is principally associated with the commercial telecommunications market.

Saft has a long-term supply agreement with ISS Reshetnev of Krasnoyarsk, Russia, which is Russia’s biggest satellite builder, and is also continuing its long business relationship with Astrium Satellites of Europe. Sennet-Cassity said Saft is making efforts in the Indian market, where the government-owned Indian Space Research Organisation is planning to build larger communications satellites to meet the country’s fast-growing demand for direct broadcast television.

The only big market that Saft cannot play in is China. U.S. technology transfer regulations, known as ITAR, or International Traffic in Arms Regulations, prohibit the export to China of most satellite on-board technologies.