To do business, reprogrammable satellites now the requirement for manufacturers

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This story was updated Sept. 12 to reflect that Maxar was selected in December to build the Ovzon-3 small geostationary satellite under a deal that transitioned to a full contract in July. 

PARIS — Manufacturers say software-defined satellites that can redesign beams and capacity have shifted from a wish-list feature to a requirement for operators. 

Satellite operators are still buying multi-ton geostationary satellites at below average rates, but for manufacturers to close even a limited number of sales, so-called “flexible” satellites that can dynamically move capacity around are a must-have. 

“Real-time flexibility: that’s the price of admission these days,” Guy Beutelschies, Lockheed Martin Space vice president of communication satellite solutions, said Sept. 11 at the World Satellite Business Week conference here. “Most customers that we’re talking to want that capability onboard and are demanding that capability onboard to have that reprogrammability.”

This year, three manufacturers have introduced dedicated reprogrammable satellite products — Airbus with OneSat, Boeing with its 702X series and Thales Alenia Space with Inspire. But regardless of whether manufacturers have a nameplate reprogrammable satellite, all said they are incorporating digital payload technology to give their satellites flexibility. 

The reason operators are demanding flexible satellites is because many are no longer comfortable building a 15-year business plan around a new satellite since telecom demand is continuing its shift from television broadcasting to internet connectivity. 

Jean-Marc Nasr, head of space systems at Airbus Defence and Space, said operators can now only comfortably predict about five years of business, meaning they want satellites that can adapt as their customers and markets change. 

“That’s probably the most important element of it, the need for flexibility,” he said. 

Jean-Luïc Gall, chief executive of Thales Alenia Space, said that two-thirds of flexible, geostationary satellites will be medium to large satellites after 2022 or 2023. Instead of weight, he characterized such satellites by a 10- to 15-kilowatt power range, saying digital payloads are more energy intensive than conventional satellites. The remaining third will be even more powerful very-high-throughput satellites or small GEOs tailored for niche markets, he said. 

Flexibility vs total cost of ownership

Manufacturers said that while flexibility is the current must-have feature, much of that emphasis stems from the near-term unpredictability of the satcom market. In the long term, operators will still care mainly about the overall cost of their satellite systems. 

“There is an overemphasis on flexibility because the customers haven’t quite figured out what the long-term business cases are,” said Dan Jablonsky, president and CEO of Maxar Technologies. “When they figure that out, there will continue to be a [focus] on cost versus how flexible the comparative use cases are.”

Frank DeMauro, vice president and general manager of Northrop Grumman’s space systems division, said his company is investing in flexible technologies for GEOstar-3, the last satellite platform Orbital ATK released before it was acquired by Northrop Grumman last year. Flexibility shouldn’t overshadow operator financial returns, though, DeMauro said.

“The company who will be able to provide the lowest cost for those kinds of satellites will be the winner,” added Galle. 

Jablonsky said Space Systems Loral, now just referred to as Maxar, is increasingly focused on civil and military space technologies that it can fold into commercial satellites. He said Maxar can break even with one or two contracts a year for GEO satellites or spacecraft that use its flagship 1300 GEO platform, as opposed to the three to four contracts SSL sought before restructuring

Once a leader in the GEO satellite market, Maxar has not won any telecom orders since Sweden’s Ovzon chose the company in December to build Ovzon-3, a small geostationary satellite based on Maxar’s Legion-class satellite platform. The Ovzon award transitioned to full contract this summer, Maxar announced in July. 

Maxar in May won a a 1300 platform order from NASA for the Power and Propulsion Element of the future lunar Gateway space station, expected to launch in late 2022

Remembering the ground

Manufacturers said reprogrammable satellites are requiring more investment in the ground control systems needed to operate satellites and steer their capacity. 

“Flexibility has to come from the ground, space and everything we do,” said Airbus’ Nasr. 

DeMauro said Northrop Grumman is providing ground infrastructure for the two Space Norway satellites it is building under a contract won in July. Northrop Grumman is using experience building ground control systems for U.S. government missions that required the manufacturer to provide more than just the satellite, he said. 

“To drive efficiencies in the ground system, and the overall system, you need standard interfaces that the industry is going to drive to,” said Chris Johnson, president of Boeing Satellite Systems International, which built the ground segment for Thuraya’s satellites and Mexico’s MexSat system. 

Moving away from both “bespoke” ground systems and hyper specialized satellites is a priority for Boeing, he said. 

Beutelschies cautioned that reprogrammable satellites come with increased cyber risk

“If you have a satellite in orbit that you can reprogram, that means someone else can reprogram it as well,” he said. 

Overall, though, several manufacturers said they view the technology risk with reprogrammable satellites as low, since many have spent years in research and development, while also borrowing from advanced technologies for government programs and high-volume commercial industries like cars and airplanes.