PARIS — Satellite fleet operator SES on Feb. 9 said its planned Feb. 24 launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 Full Thrust rocket likely will need to skip an attempted recovery of the rocket’s first stage in order to place SES’s 5,300-kilogram SES-9 satelite into the targeted orbit.
The goal is to reduce by a month or more the time it would otherwise take SES-9 to begin generating revenue.
SES Chief Executive Karim Michel Sabbagh, whose Luxembourg-based company has been the biggest commercial supporter of SpaceX’s entry into the commercial lauch market, said the decision by Spacex to modify the SES-9 mission’s launch trajectory is an example of the kind of flexibility SES is looking for among launch-service providers.
“There are things [on the rocket] that have not been tested yet but the mere fact that they have eliminated [first stage] recovery will help,” Sabbagh said in an interview. “You can improve the time it takes to get to orbit. By how much will we reduce it? We don’t know, and we wont’ know until the day after the launch.”
SES-9, built by Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, California, carries a mixed electric and conventional chemical propellant load. The original launch profile – when the mission was to occur in September, then October and December – called for the satellite to be placed into an orbit that allowed an easier recovery of the first stage. The electric propellant would then do part of the job of raising the orbit.
Electric propellant weighs much less than chemical propellant, allowing satellite fleet operators to save launch costs, or to add payload capacity. But using electrical propulsion to raise a satellite’s orbit from its rocket’s drop-off point to final geostationary position 36,000 kilometers over the equator takes several months, not a couple of weeks as with chemical propellant.
With each month of delay, the urgency of the SES-9 launch for SES has grown. The new capacity the satellite brings to SES’s 108.2 degrees east orbital position — over South Asia, Indonesia and the Philippines — figures heavily in the company’s 2016 revenue forecasts.
SES stock, which trades on Europe’s Euronext market, has suffered in recent months in part because of launch delays.
One industry official familiar with the SES-9 mission said Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX has not abandoned hope of recovering the first stage after a landing on an offshore platform positioned for the mission. But the chances of success are much less given the launch trajectory agreed to with SES to reduce the time to arrival at its operating position.
First-stage recovery is a key goal of SpaceX, both as a way to reduce launch costs by reusing the stages, and to prepare for the eventual astronaut missions to Mars that remain a long-term objective of SpaceX Chief Executive and founder Elon Musk.
For commercial fleet owners, stage recovery is a nice idea so long as it does not perturb the optimal placement into orbit of their satellites, many of which have cost more than $200 million.
SES is one of the world’s top two commercial operators, with a 50-satellite fleet. Sabbagh said SpaceX’s willingness to modify the agreed-to mission profile to put SES closer to its original SES-9 revenue-generating schedule is a good sign for the two companies’ future relations.
“Maybe in the future we will say, ‘Elon, we need to forget [stage recovery] for a certain mission because for me the opportunity cost will be too much – either for BIU [bringing-into-use regulatory deadlines] or contractual agreements,” Sabbagh said. “This is good for the industry.”
The SpaceX launch manifest for 2016 remains unclear. The company has at least a dozen – and more than that by some counts – contracted missions scheduled for the year, as well as the planned late-summer introduction of the Falcon Heavy rocket.
The SES-9 launch is next. A NASA mission using SpaceX’s Dragon capsule to deliver cargo to the international space station is likely to follow. After that the situation becomes cloudy.
Without an announced schedule from SpaceX, the only clues are the statements of customers, several of which have publicly traded stock that has been roughly treated in recent months.
Spacecom of Israel has said its Amos-6 geostationary-orbit telecommunications satellite has been penciled in for an April launch.
Paris-based Eutelsat on Feb. 9 said its 117 West A satellite is scheduled for a SpaceX launch in April. The satellite will be part of a dual mission with Bermuda-based ABS’s ABS-2A satellite. Both are Boeing-built all-electric satellites that, using their electric propulsion to climb into operating position, will take between six and seven months to reach their destinations in geostationary orbit.