SES wants fleet of identical, interchangeable satellites

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PARIS — Fleet operator SES plans to revolutionize satellite purchasing and operations.

Instead of buying individual satellites tailored for a specific job at a precise orbital location as it has for decades, the Luxembourg-based company is seeking homogenous satellites with digitally processed payloads it can reconfigure to perform any job in geostationary or medium Earth orbit.

“We will only buy one type of satellite going forward,” Steve Collar, SES president and chief executive, told reporters Sept. 10 at the World Satellite Business Week conference here. “Exactly the same spacecraft can be operated at 19.2 degrees, 23.5 degrees, 108 degrees East, it doesn’t matter. We can put them wherever we want.”

If the SES board of directors approves the plan, SES will solicit proposals by the end of the month and begin purchasing in early 2019 the new 2.5 to 2.9-ton spacecraft offering approximately 12.5 kilowatts of power, said Martin Halliwell, SES chief technology officer, who leads the initiative.

Prior to announcing its plan, SES worked with 11 potential satellite vendors and selected three for continued cooperation. Company executives declined to name the vendors.

SES is embarking on this campaign because it expects satellites to be an integral part of evolving global communications networks. To perform that role, however, the industry will need to expand satellite production dramatically, Collar said.

“If we get the savings we think we will, we will be able to significantly scale our network without spending more or more modestly scale our network and spend less,” Collar said. “We haven’t yet decided where that comes out.”

To further improve economies of scale, SES is encouraging manufacturers to share the new spacecraft design with other customers. “Let’s make the party as big as possible,” Halliwell said. Collar added, “We think it will improve the economics of the whole industry.”

SES plans to stack three of its future satellites, which don’t yet have a brand name, on rockets. The rockets could then drop them off in medium Earth or geostationary transfer orbit, as needed, Halliwell said.

SES operates 56 satellites in geostationary orbit and 16 O3B satellites in medium Earth orbit. The firm plans to launch four more O3B satellites in 2019. SES also is investing more than 1 billion euros ($1.16 billion) in O3B mPower, a seven-satellite constellation built by Boeing for internet and data connectivity that is slated to begin launching in 2021.

SES’s plans to begin flying the new reprogrammable satellites after it launches the mPower satellites, Collar said.