Satellite Manufacturers Say Slowdown Won’t be Dramatic

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U.S. and European satellite manufacturers expect a slowdown in commercial orders in 2011 but are not forecasting a sharp downturn in the next couple of years, especially given the solid underlying market for replacing existing spacecraft.

Speaking Sep. 12, manufacturers also said the average on-board power for commercial satellites will continue to increase as the older spacecraft now serving direct-broadcast television applications are replaced.

The question for these companies, and for the market at large, is how many commercial telecommunications satellites to be ordered in the coming years will be subject to open, competitive bidding, and how many will be the result of captive-market deals.

India and China are perhaps the biggest question marks. Chinese satellite manufacturers currently supply their domestic market, and have concluded a half-dozen export deals that bundle the satellite with a launch aboard a Chinese Long March rocket. Long March vehicles for the past 12 years have been all but barred from most commercial launch competitions by the U.S. government’s policy of forbidding U.S.-built satellite parts from being exported to China for launch.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is trying to keep up with India’s exploding direct-broadcast television demand by building higher-power satellites, but to date has been obliged to cut deals with foreign satellite operators to provide capacity to India’s market.

The industry consensus is that, after an average of 23 commercial telecommunications satellites ordered on the open market each year for the past five years, 2011 will show a drop. A slow first nine months has yielded just 11 commercial, open-competition orders, but U.S. and European builders expect another seven or eight contracts to be signed before January.

Cedric Balty, vice president of marketing for Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy, said that if 2011 ends with less than 20 satellites ordered it may suggest a downturn that is smoother than the sharp market contraction in 2002.

One way manufacturers hope to mitigate the effect of the market’s decline is to add value to those satellites that are ordered. Introducing electric propulsion — perhaps for satellite orbit-raising in addition to maintaining the spacecraft stably in position over 15 years — is one possible technology advance. Using electric propulsion to move a satellite from its drop-off point in geostationary transfer orbit to its final geostationary position saves hundreds of kilograms in weight that can be used to reduce the price of the launch or to add payload capacity.

Seeking out secondary payloads that can ride piggyback on a commercial satellite is another option. Kathy Shockey, vice president for research and business development at Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif., said Loral estimates that nine commercial telecommunications satellites per year could host payloads from government agencies or other institutions without compromising the main telecommunications mission.

Shockey said the assessment eliminates the heaviest and lightest telecommunications satellites from the mix, as these are less likely to have space aboard for a hosted payload. “Nine satellites per year that could host a payload — that’s quite an opportunity,” Shockey said.

Jean-Francois Charrier, vice president of marketing and international relations at Astrium Satellites of Europe, said Astrium forecasts between 20 and 22 commercial telecommunications satellites per year for the global market in the coming years, of which only 18 will be accessible to Western prime contractors, by which he meant U.S., European and Japanese manufacturers.

Astrium estimates that 40 percent of the orders in the next few years will be for replacement of satellites currently in orbit. A majority of the satellites to be ordered worldwide will be for relatively large satellites with more than 8 kilowatts of on-board power to the payload when measured at the end of the satellite’s 15-year life.

Ka-band frequencies for local television broadcasting and broadband applications are one reason for the higher power requirement. Charrier said that of the 14 telecommunications satellites now under construction at Astrium, eight include Ka-band capacity.

Loral, which specializes in high-powered satellites, agrees that higher power will be a requirement for many of the new satellites to be ordered. Shockey said the average telecommunications satellite launched a decade ago carried 5 kilowatts of power. Today, the average satellite has 9 kilowatts of power. Loral’s average spacecraft now has 15 kilowatts and the company has booked orders for five spacecraft nearing 20 kilowatts of power.