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New Boeing Satellite Platform Drawing Lots of Customer Interest

The Satmex 7 spacecraft being built on the Boeing 702SP platform will use electric propulsion not only to maintain its position in orbit but also to climb to geostationary position. Credit: Boeing artist's concept

WASHINGTON — Boeing is reviewing 14 separate requests for information or bid solicitations for commercial telecommunications satellites from prospective customers interested in the company’s new all-electric 702SP satellite design, Boeing officials said March 19.

Boeing has not sold an all-electric satellite since it created a sensation in the industry in March 2012 with the news that it had booked its first 702SP customers with a four-satellite order from Asia Broadcast Satellite (ABS) of Hong Kong and Satmex of Mexico. The satellites use electric rather than chemical propulsion not only to maintain their position in orbit but also to climb to geostationary position from the transfer orbits where they are left by their launch vehicles.

The several hundred kilograms of weight savings that comes from ditching the chemical propellant means that a midsize satellite effectively becomes a small spacecraft capable of being launched, two at a time, aboard a Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) Falcon 9 rocket.

Industry officials have said ABS and Satmex, by grouping their order and by being Boeing’s inaugural 702SP customers, paid around $85 million per satellite, with each dividing the $60 million cost of a Falcon 9 rocket. Using an all-electric design means having to wait several months for the satellite to climb into geostationary position, a maneuver that on a conventionally fueled satellite takes only a week or so.

Since Boeing won its initial order, other satellite builders have said they would accelerate their own all-electric designs. Astrium Satellites of Europe is already offering an all-electric version of its Eurostar platform to customers. Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy says it will have its own all-electric model ready for the market in 2016.

Lockheed Martin Commercial Space Systems of Newtown, Pa., and Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif., have also said they would be offering all-electric products.

China has begun work on its own satellite electric propulsion system, and the 20-nation European Space Agency has just funded a project called Electra that, with an assist from commercial satellite fleet operator SES of Luxembourg, should result in providing satellite builder OHB AG of Germany with a competing all-electric satellite platform.

While Boeing expects the 702SP to take the market by storm, the company said it is working on other, unrelated technologies that should appeal to commercial fleet operators. In particular, phased-array antennas and digital signal processors, which Boeing built for several U.S. military satellites, are the focus of the company’s internal research and development funding. The goal: Get the price of the processors and the antennas low enough to appeal to commercial operators.

U.S. satellite television broadcaster DirecTV Group of Los Angeles and satellite broadband provider Hughes Network Systems of Germantown, Md., are using a combined three Spaceway satellites originally built as part of a broadband project that was abandoned. Both companies have raved about the flexibility provided by the Boeing-built Spaceway satellites, and specifically their ability to adjust power and coverage based on market demand during the satellites’ lives.

But both companies have reverted to more conventional bent-pipe satellites in their recent orders because the Spaceway technology remains too expensive a decade after the Spaceway satellites were built.

Craig R. Cooning, general manager of Seal Beach, Calif.-based Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems, said it is a long effort, but Boeing believes the cost of these technologies can be brought to within the range of the commercial market.

Cooning said commercial satellites now account for 30 percent of Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems’ annual revenue, compared with 8 percent four years ago.

 

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