TAMPA, Fla. — Propulsion problems on four satellites using the same kind of power modules are expected to result in at least $50 million in claims for insurers already facing more than $800 million in losses this year following two major spacecraft failures.
According to multiple insurance sources, Yahsat’s Al Yah 3, Avanti Communications’ Hylas 4, and Northrop Grumman’s two Mission Extension Vehicles (MEV-1 and MEV-2) are operating with reduced power to their thrusters following a problem with onboard Power Processing Units (PPUs).
The PPUs from Aerojet Rocketdyne provide the electrical power their thrusters need for station-keeping in geostationary orbit (GEO). One of the sources said Al Yah 3, Hylas 4, and MEV-2 have each lost one of two onboard PPUs since the issue emerged in 2022. The youngest of these spacecraft, MEV-2, launched in 2020.
While reducing the voltage remaining PPUs supply thrusters appears to have stopped the power modules from failing altogether, insurers say the workaround will have some impact on their 15-year design life.
Mary Engola, a spokesperson for space propulsion and power systems at Aerojet Rocketdyne — recently sold to L3Harris — referred questions to Northrop Grumman, which built the satellites based on its Orbital ATK-heritage GEOStar-3 platform. Northrop Grumman spokesperson Jessica Kershaw declined to comment.
All four affected spacecraft were built at Northrop Grumman’s facility in Dulles, Virginia, and launched to geostationary orbit between 2018 and 2020. The PPU problem only affects satellites built using the hybrid chemical-and-electric version of the GEOStar-3 satellite bus.
|Satellite||Launch Date||Launch Vehicle||Mass (kg)|
|Al Yah 3||1/25/2018||Ariane 5||3,795|
|Hylas 4||4/5/2018||Ariane 5||4,050|
Source: Radar-Space by McKinsey. All data is collected from publicly available sources; no privately sourced company information is included in this analysis.
UAE-based Yahsat did not respond to requests for comment about the health of Al Yah 3, the first satellite built on the GEOStar-3 platform. Al Yah 3 was launched short of its target orbit by an Ariane 5 rocket in January 2018, requiring the satellite to burn through fuel reserves to get back on track in an initial hit to its service life.
Avanti’s Hylas 4 launched in April 2018 on an Ariane 5. An Avanti spokesperson said all of the British operator’s satellites “are healthy and operating normally” but would not elaborate.
An insurance source said the expected reduction in service life for Hylas 4 is not enough to trigger an insurance claim.
Northrop Grumman’s MEV-1 and MEV-2 were launched in 2019 and 2020, respectively, and are currently extending the missions of two separate Intelsat satellites they are attached to in GEO.
Operating under Northrop Grumman’s SpaceLogistics in-orbit-servicing subsidiary, the MEVs are using their onboard propulsion so their fuel-drained clients can maintain station-keeping.
MEV-1 and MEV-2 docked with Intelsat 901 and Intelsat 10-02 in 2020 and 2021, respectively, and are under contract with these satellites for five years before undocking to serve other customers that SpaceLogistics has yet to announce.
“We don’t anticipate any changes to the MEV missions for Intelsat,” Intelsat spokesperson Melissa Longo said.
David Todd, head of space content at analysis firm Seradata, told SpaceNews the MEV issue is likely to result in a $50 million insurance claim. Yahsat made a claim of around $115 million for Al Yah-3’s earlier launch issue, he added, which would likely reduce a payout resulting from its PPU trouble.
Some insurers will add the PPU claims to the roughly $300 million in losses racked up last year for accounting reasons, which would still result in a profit for 2022.
This year is a different story. Insurers expect total loss claims totaling $770 million from just ViaSat-3 Americas and Inmarsat-6 F2 alone, in addition to $40 million from Arcturus, and around $25 million from Azersky/Spot-7.
One insurer said the Capella Space radar imaging satellite lost in a Rocket Lab Electron launch failure Sept. 19 will also likely result in a claim of around $5 million, and that a payload from remote sensing firm Changguang Satellite Technology on the Chinese Ceres-1 rocket that failed Sept. 21 was also insured.
Capella spokesperson Sarah Preston confirmed the company’s Acadia 2 satellite was insured but declined to comment on the amount.
Insurers had at one point expected $550 million in total premium income in 2023 — which could be reduced if launches are delayed, meaning the market is on track for a heavy loss for the year.
While many claims are still being finalized, the space insurance market has not seen this level of potential annual losses for two decades, and sources say several underwriters are considering withdrawing from the sector in a move that would reduce capacity for covering sizable risks.