Boeing President: Electric-Propulsion Model Makes Sense for Certain Customers

[Satellite News 04-03-12] The acquisition of Hughes’ space and communications business in 2000 gave Boeing the critical mass it needed to secure a leading role in the space industry, according to Boeing President of Network and Space Systems Roger Krone, who told Satellite News that he is happy with the journey that his company has taken toward developing its new 702-SP electric-propulsion satellite.

   Boeing took a significant technological step forward in March with a four-spacecraft manufacturing contract to build a small platform version of its 702 satellite powered solely by electric motors. Krone said the technology, the result of an investment spanning the past two years, would help reduce costs in the competitive satellite market.
   “The all-electric satellite gives us our customers the weight advantage, which we hope will allow them to reduce their launch costs,” said Krone. “I think [SES President and CEO] Romain Bausch explained it best when he said that electric propulsion makes sense for a customer who has very stable and predictable needs. If the money you save from the 702-SP’s low weight, electric propulsion and launch costs makes up for the extended time it takes to get to orbit, then it makes sense.”
   Because the electric-propulsion thruster is not as powerful as traditional propulsion systems, the 702-SP will take longer to shift from its transfer orbit to its intended orbit. This lag is especially prevalent for the trip between transfer orbit and a GEO slot. The trade-off, however, made sense for Asia Broadcast Satellite (ABS) and Satélites Mexicanos (Satmex), which will each purchase two new Boeing 702-SP satellites that will be delivered in late 2014 or early 2015 and launched two at a time on commercially provided launch vehicles, including SpaceX’s Falcon 9 vehicles.
   Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems Vice President and General Manager Craig Cooning said that the company was investing its own money to improve its production line and develop new capabilities that would maintain the industrial base in the absence of new government-funded development programs. “The 702-SP is, for us, one more offering that we have to provide from our product line,” said Cooning. “There is a significant market for the SP, but that doesn’t mean we will discontinue the 702-MP or the 702-HP.”
   According to Krone, the path to an electric propulsion satellite started in 2006, when Boeing made a conscious decision to establish a single satellite design center and operation, which Cooning now manages in California.
   “We wanted one center, not five,” said Krone. “We wanted one chief engineer as opposed to several engineering leaders spread out all over the United States. This consolidation gives us predictable performance and costing and enables us to accept fixed-price. That’s why we launched the all-electric satellite to fill out our product line. We can build for customers requesting a variety of sizes — from small nano-satellites all the way up to the big 702-HP.”
   Krone also believes that there is a place for an all-electric satellite in the military satellite communications architecture, though he doesn’t think that all-electric will replace every military satellite. “There are a couple of places in the space and missile defense world where our 702-SP model makes a lot of sense,” he said. “There are certain orbital positions where all-electric makes a lot of sense. It all depends on the customer’s needs.”
   Consolidation and new technology also supports Boeing’s cost-cutting efforts with valuable military space programs — a lesson the company learned after the cancellation of the U.S. Air Force’s Transformational Satellite Communications (TSAT) program in April 2009. Boeing’s re-entry into the satellite design market came months later with the introduction of its 702B medium-power satellite model, which was implemented to offset the company’s loss from the termination.
   “We still see space as a growth market for Boeing, but the rate of growth for space is not nearly as strong as that of the iPad 3 consumer market,” said Krone. “The space market is still constrained by GEO slots. What you’re going to see in the space market is a replacement of transponders in GEO orbit. For example, we’re going to see [the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] NOAA replace its Earth observation satellites. Even Iridium and the GPS constellation is all replacement and in some ways, [Wideband Global Satcom] WGS is a replacement for some of the Milsatcom. There’s going to be a sizable market for replacement and a sizable market for new satellite capabilities.”
   On the subject of the WGS satellites Boeing is building for the Pentagon, Krone believes that his company’s collaborative partnership with the Air Force used technology to change the six-satellite contract to a fixed-price structure. “This made us able to significantly reduce the cost of WGS by changing the way we operate, oversight, find suppliers and manufacture,” said Krone. “The WGS satellite model is based on a commercial bus that we had already built and have placed into orbit. It has a very mature design and we know how to build it. All of these things really lend themselves to the different contract structure. Because we went with a fixed-cost contract structure, the Air Force now knows exactly what WGS is going to cost and when they are going to get it. We’re able to operate in a thinner oversight environment. The fewer reviews involved allow us to dedicate more people building the satellite.”
    With land operations winding down and warfare happening more often in the cyberspace arena, Krone sees WGS as a model for other programs under the government budget axe. “We see WGS as having one of those models that emerged out of the issues surrounding the budget and the deficit,” he said. “We think this model as a critical element of our success as we see military budget issues endure.” 

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