Xtar, Hisdesat weigh life extension for aging satellites

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WASHINGTON — Xtar may achieve a long-sought goal of adding Asia-Pacific coverage by keeping its pair of aging satellites in service well after their already-ordered replacements launch. 

Xtar CEO Jay Icard said the company, which provides satellite capacity exclusively to government and military customers, is deciding with its partner Hisdesat how to best keep the SpainSat and Xtar-Eur satellites flying after their replacements launch in 2023. 

“We have talked with several companies in the satellite life extension business,” Icard told SpaceNews. That includes Northrop Grumman, whose Mission Extension Vehicle 1 docked with an aging Intelsat satellite in February and returned the communications satellite to service in early April, he said. 

Xtar owns the Xtar-Eur satellite launched in 2005 and leases a payload on Hisdesat’s SpainSat launched in 2006. As those satellites near the end of their expected lives, Xtar and Hisdesat are preparing to launch replacements. Hisdesat ordered two SpainSat next-generation satellites from Airbus Defence and Space to replace Xtar-Eur and SpainSat in 2023.

The SpainSat NG satellites will continue coverage over the American continents, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and part of Asia.

Xtar has struggled to sell its capacity for several years, but Icard sees strong opportunities for growth as the U.S. Space Force takes over the Defense Department’s satellite communications mission. 

“From my perspective, they are certainly integrating [commercial satcom] into their near-term and long-term vision,” he said. “It’s an exciting thing for Xtar. I’ve been in the DoD business for about 30 years and I’ve never been able to have this level of engagement with frequency and openness.”

Icard declined to name other satellite servicing companies Xtar and Hisdesat consulted while looking for ways to keep their two satellites in orbit. Xtar and Hisdesat are deciding between servicer spacecraft or a more traditional approach — shifting the satellites into fuel-efficient inclined orbits, he said. 

Every month of propellant that would otherwise be used for station keeping in a circular geosynchronous orbit can keep an inclined GEO satellite running for about a year, Icard said. The trade-off is that inclined-orbit satellites can only serve customers with tracking antennas, limiting their service to niche markets like aircraft and ships. 

The preference of Hisdesat, the Spanish operator that holds a 44% stake in Xtar, is life extension by way of a satellite servicer, Hisdesat CEO Miguel Angel Garcia Primo told SpaceNews.

“We are currently in the final step to choose one of the two options to extend the life of our satellites,” Garcia Primo said by email. “At the appropriate price we will prefer a life extension mission with a satellite servicing provider.”

Hisdesat will operate the SpainSat NG satellites, providing X-, Ka- and UHF capacity for the Spanish military, Xtar, and other customers. 

Garcia Primo said a decision for extending the service lives of SpainSat and Xtar-Eur will be made “in the next few months.”

Icard said Xtar wants to place its older satellites at Spanish orbital slots over the Asia-Pacific in order to have global coverage. 

To do so, Xtar will have to present a convincing business plan to Hisdesat for the legacy satellites, Icard said. 

Xtar has mulled having satellite coverage over the Asia-Pacific since at least 2010

Xtar and Hisdesat join Intelsat, SES and Thaicom as operators that have purchased, or at least expressed interest in, life extension services. While interest in such services has increased, the market faces new challenges, cautioned Shagun Sachdeva, an NSR analyst focused on satellite manufacturing. 

“The biggest value proposition of life extension services has been to defer the huge capital expenditure associated with replenishment of a satellite, and that will remain a big benefit, but options like small GEOs acting as ‘gap fillers’ are limiting the need for life extension services,” she said by email. 

Sachdeva said NSR expects satellite life extension to grow in popularity as its price decreases, paving the way for other in-orbit services including satellite inspection, relocation and salvaging. 

“We expect the demand for these other applications to be higher than life extension services, but the latter is a critical initial step to prove out the technology (rendezvous and docking) for most other services,” she said.