WASHINGTON – Companies with a history of manufacturing large geostationary satellites have succeeded in diversifying their product lines to attract new customers.  

“We are not on the precipice of change; The entire business has changed,” Cyrus Dhalla, Northrop Grumman Tactical Space Systems Division senior vice president and general manager, said March 13 during a manufacturing panel at the Satellite 2023 conference here.

Gone are the days of 20 annual orders for large geostationary communications satellites. Now, there may be “10, 12, 13, 14” orders per year, said Claude Rousseau, NSR research director and panel moderator.

As a result, satellite manufacturers have expanded their businesses to supplying small and medium-size satellites to commercial and government customers.

Government customers include “many nations now requiring sovereign space capability,” said Johnathon Caldwell, Lockheed Martin military space vice president and general manager.

Radically Reduced Price

Lockheed Martin now produces more small satellites annually than large satellites, Caldwell said.

Caldwell agreed that commonality is an important aspect of small satellite manufacturing. “But it’s also driven by the investments in a bunch of small suppliers,” he added.

One of the firms Lockheed Martin is backing is Terran Orbital, the Florida company that won a $2.4 billion contract to supply satellites for Rivada Space Networks.

Noting the speedy timeline for manufacturing 300 Rivada satellites, Caldwell said, “I have high confidence they’re going to step up under this contract. They’re going to execute.”

Terran Orbital’s ability to scale up small satellite manufacturing will help Lockheed Martin supply customers with satellites at “a radically reduced price point,” Caldwell said.

Risky Business

While massive satellites carry higher price tags, small satellites are proving profitable for Airbus largely due to standardization, said Jean-Marc Nasr, Airbus Defence and Space executive vice president of space systems.

Airbus is selling its Arrow 450 produced by Airbus OneWeb Satellites to various customers including Northrop Grumman.

“We see potential sales of 500 to 1,000 in the next five years,” Nasr said.

Building large satellites to meet an individual customer’s requirements is a risky business compared with mass manufacturing small satellites, Nasr said.

To keep costs in line, “master your supply chain,” Nasr said. Continually question your make-or-buy decisions. If other companies can produce parts or components better than you can, “sign long term deals with them,” he added.

GEO Remains Important

Thales Alenia supplies small satellites through its joint venture with BlackSky. “This market is driven by telecommunications, but also by Earth observation,” said Hervé Derrey, Thales Alenia Space CEO.

Derrey emphasized that large geostationary satellites remain important. Certain telecommunications missions would be challenging and expensive to perform with satellites in low or medium-Earth orbit, he added.

More Smallsat Orders

U.S. government customers have clearly expressed their desire to rely less on large satellites.

“They’re going to continue buying some capabilities in GEO,” Dhalla said. “We are seeing orders for much smaller satellites.”

Even satellites once considered mid-size, like Northrop Grumman’s GEOStar platform, looked big to a recent factory visitor.

“Time has really changed hasn’t it, when you look at something that was considered small five to 10 years ago” and someone comments on how big it is, Dhalla said.

Going Faster

In the face of myriad market opportunities, Maxar Technologies will “leverage the commercial go-fast mentality” to meet customer demands for speedy satellite manufacturing, said Chris Johnson, Maxar Space senior vice president and general manager.  

In terms of software-defined satellites, Maxar is taking a different approach from some of its competitors.

“There’s another place that we can go to add value to a certain portion of the market, just like we had value proposition in the GEO market before,” Johnson said. “We are going to leverage a different price point.”

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...