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All Electric Satellites: Revolution or Evolution?

By Carol Patton | May 1, 2013

      Jay Gullish, director of Space & Telecommunications at Futron, vividly recalls his reaction last year when Boeing made its groundbreaking announcement about launching two satellites with all-electric propulsion for two different customers – Satmex and ABS – in the same slot, on the same rocket.

      “Innovation and satellite manufacturing are not always words that end up in the same sentence,” says Gullish. “Due to the expensive nature, risk aversion and technical complexity, innovation has been fairly slow in satellite communications.”

      One year later, the industry is still optimistic for innovation, but reality has entered the scene. Electric propulsion has a long and successful history regarding station keeping, or keeping the satellite in its position on orbit, but not with orbit raising, when satellites use their own propulsion system to reach orbit after separating from the rocket. Traditionally, more powerful chemical propulsion engines are used to quickly move satellites through Earth’s hazardous radiation belt. All-electric propulsion offers other challenges, too, that can jeopardize missions. Boeing’s grand news has prompted some companies to adopt a wait-and-see attitude while developing or adding hybrid options to their product line.

      The main focus of Boeing’s deal has been on the technology. However, Gullish believes the company’s application of joint procurement was a “clear business innovation.” By offering a dual launch configuration, the financial cost and risk is cut in half for operators, which lowers barrier-to-entry into the space market for small providers and entrepreneurs.

      Although Boeing’s idea won’t necessarily open the door to other technologies, Gullish says it will provide satellite operators with more economical options. “Presuming that the electric propulsion system actually works well and is cheaper over time, more companies will offer this type of technology,” he says. “You will see it ramp up as people get comfortable with it … Five years from now, we’ll probably be at that cusp, where the industry accepts this type of technology as the norm.”

      According to Dionisio Tun, vice president, engineering and satellite operations at Satmex, his company decided to use an all-electric satellite because it will improve capital investment efficiencies and is likely to expand business opportunities.

      “Maybe more companies will use electric propulsion,” he says. “But because you are using one or the other system doesn’t mean you will need to choose one application. We can still address the same opportunities … maintain our business plan … and look for new opportunities to use it.”

      But, all-electric satellites carry a trade-off. “The only disadvantage is that since the thrust of such systems is lower than chemical propulsion systems, it will take satellites up to six months longer to reach their final orbit,” says Tun.

      While orbit raising may be an issue for some operators, he says his company plans on offsetting the longer time frame with a shorter production cycle. Besides, the advantages are too strong to be ignored. Consider the lower mass of its all-electric satellite, he says, which allows Satmex to have a dual launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, optimizing the use of capacity of this launcher.

      “Once the satellite is in orbit, during the execution of a maneuver in the stationary orbit, you will have a better pointing accuracy toward the Earth,” says Tun, explaining that signal variations will be reduced. “Instead of doing one maneuver every two weeks, you’ll be doing one maneuver every day.”

      All-electric satellites can also carry larger payloads. Because of the efficiencies of electric propulsion, larger payloads can fit on a smaller platform, adds Jim Simpson, VP, business development, at Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems.

      “Our 702SP (small platform) satellite has a capability of 7.5 kilowatts of payload but the mass of the satellite is effectively half of what a traditional chemical propulsion satellite system would be,” explains Simpson. “It also utilizes fuel very efficiently. A bi-propellant system may weigh four metric tons to do the same type of activity that a two metric ton electric propulsion would do.”

      So far, Boeing is on schedule to deploy its all-electric satellites in early 2015. While they are a new part of the company’s 702 product line, all-electric satellites are not the only change. Boeing also redesigned its 702HP (high power), which uses both electric and bipropellant fuel to provide a configuration compatible with the Falcon 9, and introduced the 702MP (medium power) in 2009, which uses bipropellant but was designed to also accommodate other, more efficient electric propulsion.

      Although Simpson says the 702SP is attracting much interest, Boeing’s strategy is to provide a portfolio of satellites, enabling customers to pick the most appropriate technology for their economics and mission planning. The company is currently in contract talks with several manufacturers. Simpson explains that all-electric satellites enable traditional and regional satellite providers to increase their capability with less risk more than ever before.

      He says this new application also offers additional antenna coverages. Two small satellites operating together would be equipped with eight to 10 antennas while larger satellites usually offer between four and five antennas.

      Another aspect to consider is that the U.S. government, specifically the U.S. Air Force, plans on procuring “off-the-production-line” buses, rather than tailored buses for their unique payloads. This allows the Air Force to avoid carrying obsolescence and extra costs of a USAF-unique bus.

      “The bus would not necessarily be unique but the payloads could be tailored to some of the needs of the warfighter,” Simpson says, adding that the 702SP is well-suited for a production line and aligns with a more disaggregated architecture of satellites, which is the architectural future vision being considered by the government. “So the economics, the flexibility and the fit relative to a disaggregated space, or more robust space architecture, seem suited for the 702SP in our product line,” he says.

      The move to a 702SP was also a reaction to a diminishing government satellite market. Boeing purposely shifted its portfolio, developing a balanced commercial and government product line. Since then, he says the company’s commercial business jumped from roughly 9 percent to nearly 35 percent. “This has been part of our strategy starting around 2007 but was really put into play by adding the 702MP and 702SP into our product line,” says Simpson.


      Risky Business

      While most are rooting for Boeing’s success, some are still reluctant to endorse all-electric satellites because they introduce new failure modes on the spacecraft. Consider that dual launches have been around for a long time. All-electric satellites can fit on a smaller launch vehicle than what the rest of the market is offering.

      The SpaceX Falcon 9, for example, has successfully carried supplies to the space station roughly several hundred miles above the Earth. But it has not yet launched any spacecraft to the GTO or geostationary transfer orbit, which is approximately 22,000 miles above the Earth.

      “If you eliminate the chemical system completely, you have some risk,” notes Barry Noakes, chief engineer, commercial ventures, at Lockheed Martin Space Systems. “As the satellite separates from the launch vehicle, the spacecraft can also tumble [out of control] due to an anomaly [like] how it came off the launch vehicle. Electric propulsion will not easily be able to correct the spacecraft if that occurs. You need chemical thrusters to do that.”

      Noakes says many of his customers want spacecraft faster than they can be built. So waiting up to an additional six months for station keeping delays their revenue flow, something they may not be willing to tolerate. Other operators want to raise orbit quicker through the Earth’s radiation belt. That may mean designing a different vehicle or adding more shields, which in turn adds mass and reduces the size of payload, minimizing one of the system’s key advantages. He says all-electric satellites are more manageable for mature satellite companies, not start-ups or entrepreneurs who lack existing capital to pay back massive loans.

      These satellites allow some of these companies that are traditionally not in space to start thinking about using some of these technologies to reduce their operating costs.
      —Barry Noakes, Lockheed Martin Space Systems

      Still, if all-electric satellites are successful, Noakes believes they will open up new markets. He points to banks and retailers as an example, or companies that transmit data from multiple points to a central location. “There are certainly other companies that might be interested in entering the space market and become an operator of spaceflight hardware,” he says, adding that retailers like gas stations have been using VSAT links for years. “These satellites allow some of these companies that are traditionally not in space to start thinking about using some of these technologies to reduce their operating costs.”

      Since 1996, Lockheed’s standard offering has been its A2100 product, which uses arc jets – a form of electric propulsion that enhances the capability of chemical propulsion systems. However, since customer interest has risen regarding all-electric satellites, Noakes’ company will continue featuring Hall current thrusters (HCT) as standard equipment. The A2100 platform features HCT, which he says provides more thrust than most other EP systems. It uses magnetic fields to focus and accelerate ions where traditional ion engines use electric fields to accelerate ions.

      While all-electric satellites open the risk aperture for customers, Noakes says no one wants a competitor to fail. “There’s always a stream of requests from customers asking for creative ways to meet their needs,” he says. “It’s really about the cost. If it really drives the satellite cost down by using an all-electric propulsion system, our industry is going to get more business.”

      One futuristic use of electric propulsion might be a spacecraft repair vehicle being designed in part by Space Systems Loral’s (SSL) parent company, MDA, according to Chris Hoeber, senior vice president of systems engineering at SSL. The roving spacecraft could use electric propulsion as it navigates in space to repair satellites, deliver fuel or perform other functions.

      Until then, Hoeber believes all-electric satellites won’t really change the way his company conducts business. He noted that satellite operators with large fleets could predict fairly accurately when they need to be replaced, which allows the lead-time to accommodate an all-electric solution.

      While no one knows how much of the communications market will be captured by all-electric satellites, Hoeber suspects that they could help the market grow by around 10 percent. Since no satellite offers a one-size-fits-all solution, he says his company will continue servicing operators in need of all types of spacecraft, adding that hybrid solutions win most of the time.

      “If you talk to 20 or so of our customers, half of them would say, ‘The economic benefits are so compelling that I’m willing to bet on it,’” says Hoeber. “The other half would say, ‘You have to be kidding me. After they’ve had five successful launches, come back and talk to me.’”

      Since satellite launches are expensive, finding ways to slash costs is definitely valued. Paying half the usual cost of a launch or less can make the difference between a business case that closes and one that unravels. Still, the cost of the launch is usually less than half the price of the spacecraft, explains Thierry Guillemin, chief technical officer, Intelsat. So, operators may save roughly 25 percent to 30 percent. While any realized savings is important, he says it’s not necessarily a game changer for small operators or entrepreneurs with limited access to funds.

      Intelsat owns more than 50 of the 77 satellites it flies. None use an all-electric propulsion system. Guillemin adds that roughly one quarter of the satellites use a mixture of electrical and chemical propulsion systems while the rest rely on chemical propulsion systems. Electrical can be Xips, arc jets and, since 2000, a Russian-developed ion propulsion system called SPT (stationary plasma thrusters).

      He regards electric-propulsion satellites as simply another option. In the end, the key question is always, “what system configuration works best for each application?” More options usually translate to more satisfied customers.

      “Electric propulsion satellites are likely to be used more and more systematically because of all the benefits of saving fuel like launch mass reduction, extended life and bigger payloads,” says Guillemin. “For us, they’re not something that changes our view, they’re just one more way to use the technology at our disposal.”


      Both Sides of the Fence

      Depending upon how expensive or complicated the mission is, large operators plan on taking advantage of all technologies – all-electric, all-chemical and hybrids – says Sami Ben Amor, product line management director, telecommunications, at Thales Alenia Space. While no one will currently test an all-electric system on a $250 million satellite, he believes some would take a chance with a 10-kilowatt, plain vanilla, cheaper satellite.

      Other customers can’t afford to wait more than one month, let alone six months, for the satellite to be operational and start generating revenue. However, if the all-electric satellite technology proves to be reliable, he expects it to attract up to 40 percent of the market within the next few years.

      “Some entrepreneurial ventures and smaller companies that maybe own one satellite or none at all, will definitely be interested,” Ben Amor says. “They might try to buy their own satellite.”

      They’re not the only ones. Ben Amor notes that governments of small countries have expressed an interest. Even big operators may be willing to take a relatively small financial risk to test market in certain regions or countries. He says the interest is strong enough that Thales is currently designing different chemical and electric solutions that should be available by year’s end and all-electric systems within a few years. “We will have to evolve at the same rhythm as the space industry to meet customers’ needs,” he says.