SES Technology Chief Sings Praises of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Rocket

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PARIS — Satellite fleet operator SES of Luxembourg, whose culture of risk aversion is widely known in the industry, has given a ringing endorsement of Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), saying the startup launch service provider’s twice-flown Falcon 9 rocket is “above any of the other launch vehicles.”

The positive review of a supplier it has never used is all the more striking considering that it came not from the SES marketing department — the company has purchased a Falcon 9 launch — but from SES Chief Technology Officer Martin Halliwell.

In a May 24 presentation to SES investors, Halliwell said SES’s decision to launch its SES-8 satellite aboard an upgraded version of the current Falcon 9 rocket in March 2013 is “a major step forward, not only for us, but for the industry in general.”

SES is the first major operator of geostationary orbiting telecommunications satellites to order a Falcon 9.

Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX is obliged to demonstrate the flight worthiness of an upgraded main-stage engine, a larger propellant tank and a wider payload fairing before proceeding with the SES-8 launch. But it is not required to demonstrate a flight to geostationary transfer orbit, where most telecommunications satellites are dropped off in orbit. The satellites then use their own power to climb to final geostationary position 36,000 kilometers over the equator.

In return for giving SpaceX a blue-chip name to add to its manifest, the SES contract was concluded for a price that industry officials said is unbeatable — well under $60 million for a satellite weighing a bit more than 3,000 kilograms.

Halliwell said only that SpaceX’s current Falcon 9 pricing is “less than 60 percent of the price of other operators.”

In his presentation to investors, Halliwell stressed SES’s policy of seeking a broader range of rockets to choose from to maintain and expand its fleet of 44 satellites. The company has signed multilaunch agreements with Arianespace of Evry, France, for Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket, and with International Launch Services (ILS) of Reston, Va., which markets Russia’s Proton heavy-lift rocket.

Halliwell said if SpaceX falls behind schedule, SES will transfer the SES-8 launch contract to ILS or Arianespace. SES also is willing to launch its satellites with Sea Launch Co. of Long Beach, Calif., which is returning to flight this year following Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization.

SES’s evaluation of launch vehicles is important because the company is one of the few commercial satellite operators that have the resources to conduct in-depth technical reviews of its satellite and rocket suppliers.

Halliwell said the Falcon 9 rocket is “human-rated — which puts it above any of the other launch vehicles.”

Most of SES’s satellites are too big to be launched by the Falcon 9 version to be launched in 2013. But SES is working with Princeton University in the United States on a new-generation electric propulsion system that could permit heavy satellites to become much lighter in the future.

SES is funding the Princeton work as part of a two-year project to bring electric propulsion firmly into the commercial market. Several satellite operators have used one or another version of electric propulsion for years to reduce their satellites’ weight. But these are usually satellites that would have trouble finding a launch among today’s main commercial-launch vehicles, and they also carry chemical propulsion.

Halliwell said SES’s work with Princeton on electric propulsion is designed to permit a large satellite to reduce its weight by up to 50 percent. That weight savings could be used to add more payload or to move from a heavy-lift to a less-expensive medium-lift rocket such as Falcon 9.

In addition to what some operators view as its still-untested nature — despite being used on Russian telecommunications satellites for more than two decades — the technology requires more time for a satellite to reach its final destination, typically a month or two instead of just a few days.

Halliwell said the Princeton technology should be ready for a flight demonstration within three or four years.

SES’s recent reorganization to streamline its structure has affected its technology department as well, Halliwell said. The company’s goal is to reach a 38 percent efficiency improvement between 2009 and 2014. By 2017, he said, a single SES satellite controller should be able to handle up to eight satellites, versus five today.