Boeing Exec Confident About More Electric Satellite Deals (Part One)

[Satellite News 07-06-12] Boeing Satellite Systems International (BSSI) created a stir this past March at SATELLITE 2012 when it announced that it had sold 702SP electric propulsion satellites to Asia Broadcast Satellite (ABS) and Satmex. In a two-part interview with Satellite News, BSSI President Steve O’Neill sheds some light on the background of one of the most talked about contracts of the year, and how the company is planning to advance the electric satellite platform.

 
Satellite News: Could you tell us the significance of the recent deals with ABS and SatMex?
 
O’Neill: We are very pleased that Satmex and ABS were the first to procure all-electric satellites. Let me go back a bit in time. Boeing was the first in the market to provide electric propulsion (EP) systems in the mid-1990s as augmentation to the bi-propellant system. We are now first to market with an all-electric propulsion system. I believe that is a disruptive change in our industry. It allows significant cost reductions to satellite operators as they define cost per transponder delivered to orbit.
 
Satellite News: What technical advantages have your customers identified with all-electric satellites?
 
O’Neill: The advantage of an all-electric propulsion system is you have a much lighter mass because you have done away with the bi-propellant system — not only the weight of the bi-prop motor, but all the fuel associated with that. At the same time, you are able to maintain the payload power in the range of 3 kilowatts to 8 kilowatts, as we have with the new Boeing 702SP satellite. That gives you the capability to package the exact same type of electronics and antennae at a significantly lower mass. What does that translate to? With the Falcon 9, you have a dual-satellite launch-capable system, and that will allow the first 702SP satellites to be co-passengers.
 
Satellite News: How popular do you think these types of electric satellites will be compared to other more traditional satellites in the future?
 
O’Neill:  We are in discussions with many operators and there are very positive feelings around that. In particular, I’ll refer to comments made at SATELLITE 2012 by SES CEO Romain Bausch who is very bullish on electric propulsion. He said he was looking forward to buying an all-electric propulsion system in the near future. We do believe that providing this capability in the 3- to 8-kilowatt range will meet many of the future requirements of today’s buyers. Anyone that is looking for that type of capacity clearly needs to understand the implication of the disruptive cost of providing that lower cost per transponder to orbit, and this will definitely change the industry.
 
Satellite News: Do you expect one of the big four FSS operators to go for an electric-propulsion satellite in the near future?
 
O’Neill: In each case, operators need to look at their business model. The larger operators may need larger satellites than in the 702SP’s range.
 
Satellite News: Are you expecting to see a slowdown in the next 12 months in the numbers of satellites that operators order?
 
O’Neill: It seems like most of the experts in the industry use a 10-year time period and they tend to forecast, on average, 15 to 25 GEO commercial satellites per year during that time. We tend to be a little bit more conservative than those forecasts. To forecast any 12-month period can be a little difficult. But I would tell you, seeing what is out there in the industry in terms of RFIs and RFPs, I have not seen any significant downturn. The market is principally dominated by the replacement market. So, you have the replacement market of the big four, but then you have also companies like Satmex and ABS coming into the industry needing new capacity.
 

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