PHOENIX, Arizona – A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on June 15 successfully placed two all-electric commercial telecommunications satellites into geostationary transfer orbit in a repeat of a nearly identical mission conducted in March 2015 with the same two customers.
The satellites were reported to be in good health in orbit and sending signals. The attempted landing of the rocket’s first stage on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean ended with the stage’s “rapid unscheduled disassembly” on impact, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said in a Twitter post.
“Looks like thrust was low on 1 of 3 landing engines. High-g landings [very] sensitive to all engines operating at max…. Upgrades underway to enable rocket to compensate for a thrust shortfall on one of the three landing engines. Probably get there end of year,” Musk said. “Maybe hardest impact to date. Droneship still ok.”
Launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, the Falcon 9 placed the Eutelsat 117 West B satellite, owned by Paris-based Eutelsat, and Bermuda-based ABS’s ABS-2A satellite into transfer orbit.
The satellites, built by Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, California, were part of a four-satellite contract – two for each company – concluded in March 2012. The original contract was with ABS and Satmex of Mexico, since purchased by Eutelsat.
The contract was considered a milestone for the commercial satellite industry, marking the first use of all-electric propulsion by Western satellite owners. Replacing conventional propellent saves up to 50 percent of a satellite’s weight, allowing owners to select less-costly launch vehicles or to add additional payload. The two satellites weigh about 2,000 kilograms each and would have weighed around 4,000 kilograms with conventional chemical propellant.
Industry officials have said ABS and Eutelsat – then Satmex – paid about $100 million for each of the four satellites, and then divided the cost of the two SpaceX launches, whose cost was about $60 million for each mission.
Building and launching a satellite carrying 48 transponders for $130 million each, plus insurance, was considered a good buy four years ago and still is today.
The downside of electric propulsion is that it takes up to six months to reach its final destination in geostationary orbit. The challenge today among satellite manufacturers is to find the optimum tradeoff between weight savings and the start date of commercial service – a moving target that depends on each satellite owner’s priorities.
But Boeing has been unable to transform this initial deal into a durable competitive advantage over its U.S., European and Japanese competitors, in part because the full value lies in getting two customers to synchronize their purchases to be ready at the same time for launch aboard a Falcon 9. That has proved more difficult than originally imagined, even though both ABS and Eutelsat have said they were happy with the Boeing 702SP product.
ABS Chief Executive Tom Choi has gone so far as to say he would wait for the U.S. Export-Import Bank, the U.S. export-credit agency, to return to full service rather than seek out a competing satellite design from a company with access to another export-credit agency.
The launch comes at a time of transition for both Eutelsat and ABS. Eutelsat is reviewing its overall strategy in light of surprisingly weak first-quarter earnings and a warning to investors that 2016 and 2017 would not meet earlier revenue and profit forecsasts.
ABS, owned by private-equity investor Permira, is for sale, and industry officials widely view Eutelsat as the most logical buyer. Eutelsat’s global footprint is weakest in Asia, where ABS is strongest. Whether Eutelsat, given its strategy rethink, has an appetite for what likely would be a billion-dollar purchase is unclear.
Eutelsat 117 West B will be operated from 117 degrees west longitude. Its 48 Ku-band transponders will be distributed over four regional beams covering the southern United States and Mexico, the Andean region, Central America, the Caribbean and South America.
The satellite also carries a hosted payload, contracted from Raytheon, to provide augmentation of GPS positioning, navigation and timing signals as part of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS).
ABS-2A, to operate from 75 degrees east, also has 48 Ku-band transponders and five regional beams covering Russia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa.
Liftoff occurs around 27:41 minutes into SpaceX’s hour-long webcast.