Advances in life extension and small satellite technologies are giving operators more to think about when it comes to continuing services after an asset in geostationary orbit (GEO) runs out of station-keeping fuel.

Typically, GEO operators would just order another expensive, school bus-sized replacement satellite with upgrades to expand their services. But that can be less palatable in a satellite communications market with concerns about an oversupply of capacity and disruption from low Earth orbit constellations.

However, operators now have the option of using a servicer to breathe new life into their aging satellite or ordering from an emerging breed of manufacturer focusing on much smaller GEO spacecraft.

Both options have recently achieved important commercial milestones that bring them closer to widespread adoption, although it’s still early days for the life extension market in particular.

Northrop Grumman’s SpaceLogistics subsidiary recently said it is close to securing a customer for the last of three propulsion jetpacks it plans to launch late next year, after already helping to pioneer a commercial life extension market with two ongoing missions.

Over in the fast-growing small GEO market, 3D printing specialist Swissto12 announced May 19 it had secured an order from Inmarsat for three dishwasher-sized satellites for a launch in 2026.

The Swiss maker’s first satellite, for Intelsat, is slated to launch in 2025.

Californian startup Astranis celebrated the launch of its debut small GEO satellite Arcturus April 30, and about a month later confirmed it had passed a key end-to-end payload test.

Astranis CEO John Gedmark said his company had signed contracts for 10 satellites to date, all secured before even launching its inaugural spacecraft and showing it worked.

Following the successful launch of Arcturus, he said Astranis would “turbocharge things and our sales team is going to really have their hands full.”

While sluggish supply chains are an ongoing issue for the space industry, Gedmark said the company could churn out a satellite in six months if it had all long lead items in hand, compared with years for larger, conventional satellites.

Expanding capacity toolbox

Small satellites are cheaper than their larger cousins but have reduced capacity because they have less room for transponders and power.

An operator must consider multiple other advantages and disadvantages when choosing between life extension, a small GEO satellite, or a more conventional replacement spacecraft that is still the most popular choice — including varying capacity lifetimes.

“It’s a balancing act,” said Kyle Whitehill, CEO of British satellite operator Avanti Communications, who is currently weighing up the merits of a life extension mission versus ordering a small GEO satellite.

Two of Avanti’s four GEO satellites are slated to reach the end of their operational lives around 2027 and 2028. Whitehill said there could be a business case for extending its Hylas 2 satellite, the more powerful of these two with 11 gigahertz of capacity.

Despite being 11 years old, Hylas 2 has “customers that are enjoying the service — and the satellite is absolutely fine,” he said, “so therefore for a significantly lower cost than a new satellite we can extend the life of an existing one.”

Alternatively, a new small GEO satellite could help Avanti meet rising connectivity demand in new markets.

Starting with how much capacity the company expects to be able to sell in such a market, Whitehill said a business plan could be drawn up to show how much a small GEO satellite would need to cost to make the economics work.

This is in stark contrast to a “build it and they will come” strategy that the satellite industry has traditionally operated under.

“Can you make a good business case and can you then begin to collaborate with one of the relatively startup operators in order to make sure that the economics work for that for both parties?” he questioned.

The lifetime of an Astranis satellite is around half a conventional GEO that is usually designed to operate for 15 years — not much over the six-year life extension SpaceLogistics touts for its upcoming capability.

Unsurprisingly, for Astranis ordering satellites with the latest technologies still trumps extending old assets.

“Philosophically, we believe that we should be really pushing the pace and getting more satellites with the newest technology up faster and on shorter cycles than in the past,” Gedmark said.

This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...