WASHINGTON — The world’s principal commercial satellite manufacturers on March 15 unanimously dismissed a proposed satellite in-orbit service project backed by Intelsat and Canada’s MDA, saying the idea, while intriguing, is unlikely to make business sense for years.
Addressing the Satellite 2011 conference here, officials from these companies said that while there appears to be no technical obstacle to robotically refueling satellites or performing minor repairs, closing the business case appears next to impossible without heavy government backing.
Many of these officials had not yet been fully briefed on plans by Luxembourg- and Washington-based Intelsat — the biggest commercial customer for these manufacturers — to begin use of MDA’s Space Infrastructure Services (SIS) robotic servicing unit as soon as 2015.
Intelsat has contracted with Richmond, British Columbia-based MDA to purchase 1,000 kilograms of fuel to extend the lives of several Intelsat satellites by between three and five years each. Intelsat has agreed to pay $280 million for the service assuming that all the ordered fuel is successfully transferred to aging Intelsat satellites.
Adding 20 percent or more to the life of a telecommunications satellite was unlikely to win applause from satellite makers in any event, and it found little support among them here.
“Above all this will be a field day for lawyers,” said Stephen O’Neill, president of Boeing Satellite Systems International of El Segundo, Calif., referring to regulatory issues involved in moving satellites in geostationary orbit, and the possible insurance issues involved in docking with a satellite.
Evert Dudok, chief executive of Astrium Satellites of Europe, said his company has found with construction of Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle cargo carrier for the international space station that rendezvous and docking require a large amount of investment. That being the case, he said, it will be difficult to develop an in-orbit servicing business on a commercial basis.
Reynald Seznec, chief executive of Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy, said he viewed the idea “with mixed feelings. We need this kind of innovation in the industry, but I would think it is more suitable for higher-value institutional satellites, not commercial satellites.”
David W. Thompson, chief executive of Orbital Sciences of Dulles, Va., agreed with Seznec, saying a satellite servicing project likely could not find its initial footing in the commercial market.
“I would think a servicing model could be viable in 10 years,” Thompson said. “It probably will require some kind of public-private partnership, and it is not likely that the earliest market will be in geostationary orbit,” the destination of most commercial telecommunications satellites.
Asked what Orbital might do to prepare its satellites for in-orbit servicing, Thompson joked: “We’d probably weld that fuel cap on.”
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