SpaceX Lofts Pair of All-Electric Satellites for ABS and Eutelsat

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PARIS — A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on March 1 successfully launched two telecommunications satellites destined for geostationary orbit – the  first dual-geostationary launch for Falcon 9, which inaugurated a new all-electric satellite design from Boeing.

The two satellites’ owners, fleet operators Eutelsat of Paris and ABS of Bermuda, said their spacecraft safely separated from the Falcon 9 upper stage and were healthy and sending signals in orbit. Liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida, occurred at 10:50 p.m. EST.

The launch did not include a SpaceX attempt to recover the Falcon 9 first stage because the requirements of a launch to geostationary transfer orbit demand too much of the stage’s fuel.

Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX expects to introduce modifications to the rocket beginning this year so that, ultimately, launches to geostationary orbit would include first-stage recovery.

SpaceX has disclosed little information about the upgrade, leaving its first customer — SES of Luxembourg — to describe the engine enhancements and explain to SES investors why the company agreed to be the inaugural customer for the more-powerful first stage.

The SES launch of the enhanced first stage is scheduled this summer. The satellite, called SES-9, is expected to weigh around 5,300 kilograms at launch.

SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said via Twitter that the more-powerful Falcon 9 would permit first-stage recovery even for geostationary launches.

Musk did not say whether this new Falcon 9 version would require a fresh certification review by NASA and the U.S. Air Force, whose separate evaluations of the current Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket are expected to be completed by the middle of this year, permitting SpaceX launches of U.S. military and NASA satellites.

In addition to demonstrating SpaceX’s ability to launch two geostationary telecommunications satellites, the launch placed into orbit the inaugural models of Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems’ 702SP all-electric satellite.

The decision by Bermuda-based ABS and Mexico’s Satmex — since purchased by Eutelsat and renamed Eutelsat Americas — to purchase four 702SP in a March 2012 contract had the effect of a lightning strike on the commercial satellite industry. Since then, several Boeing competitors have debuted their own all-electric designs.

No Such Thing as a Free Launch

Using electric propulsion removes several hundred kilograms of mass from a satellite, allowing the weight savings to be used to add more electronics payload or to permit the satellite to be launched on a lower-cost launch vehicle.

ABS-3A weighed 1,900 kilograms at launch. Eutelsat 115 West B weighed 2,200 kilograms. The combined weight was low enough to stack one atop another on a Falcon 9, a rocket that sells for around $60 million per launch.

Two Boeing-built, all-electric telecommunications satellites stacked in the position in which they will ride to orbit aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9. Credit: Boeing
The Boeing-built ABS-3A and Eutelsat 115 West B all-electric telecommunications satellites stacked in the position in which they rode to orbit aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9. Credit: Boeing

ABS and Satmex/Eutelsat purchased four 702SPs for around $100 million each, with an option for four others.

ABS Chief Executive Thomas Choi said at the time that it was the combination of the 702SP and the dual launch on the Falcon 9 that sealed the deal.

The downside of all-electric propulsion is that its thrusters take much longer than chemical propellant to deliver a satellite to a given position. For these first two 702SPs, ABS and Eutelsat will need to wait about eight months before the satellites are in position and ready to generate revenue.

The successful March 1 launch clears the way for a SpaceX launch of Turkmenistan’s first satellite, now scheduled for March 21 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Turkmensat-1, built by Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy, originally was set for launch on a Chinese Long March rocket, whose prices rival SpaceX’s as the lowest available on the commercial market.

Thales Alenia Space was ultimately obliged to move off the Chinese vehicle after the U.S. State Department concluded that the satellite contained U.S.-built components that are barred from export to China.

The decision put an end to the idea of what Thales Alenia Space had described as an “ITAR-free satellite,” meaning a spacecraft with no critical parts covered by the International Traffic in Arms Regulations. The State Department ruling was interpreted to mean that, in effect, there is no such thing as an ITAR-free satellite that includes U.S. components, no matter how unexceptional.