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SES Chief Prefers Modular Ariane 6 for Launch Flexibility
PARIS — The world’s second-largest commercial satellite fleet operator has advised the European Space Agency (ESA) that the future commercial launch market would prefer a next-generation rocket that is modular in design and capable of orbiting telecommunications satellites of varying sizes one at a time.
Luxembourg-based SES is ready to consider ordering all-electric-propulsion satellites for its future fleet requirements, a development that likely would have an effect on the kind of launch vehicles it buys, SES Chief Executive Romain Bausch said.
“We see the market splitting into two groups of satellites — one between 3,000 and 3,500 kilograms, the other at 6,000 to 6,500 kilograms,” Bausch said in remarks to journalists March 12 that were supplemented March 28 in response to Space News inquiries.
“ESA has asked us our thoughts about the market and we have told them what we thought,” he said. “It is certainly along the lines of what has been called Ariane 6, a modular vehicle capable of launching one satellite at a time covering the two weight classes into GTO,” or geostationary transfer orbit, the rocket drop-off point for most telecommunications satellites.
The 19-nation ESA is canvassing European commercial and government satellite owners to determine what kind of vehicle to propose to the agency’s member governments when they meet in November. One vehicle would provide more power to the current Ariane 5, while another option would develop the modular vehicle.
Like most of the world’s established fleet operators, SES is not known for being on the cutting edge of new technology. But with its satellite fleet at about 50 spacecraft and counting, the company is able to experiment with innovations that would be more difficult for startup operators.
SES notably has said in the past year or two that all-electric satellites, which can save hundreds of kilograms over conventional chemical propulsion, are a near-term possibility.
The news that two relatively small fleet operators, Asia Broadcast Satellite of Hong Kong and Satmex of Mexico, had together purchased four all-electric satellites from Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, Calif., has only encouraged SES to move forward.
“You can save 20 [million], 30 [million] or 40 million euros [$26 million to $52 million] if you can reduce by 10-20 percent the weight of your satellite,” Bausch said. “That’s not bad. If you have a large fleet, you can afford to wait the three to six months it needs to get to geostationary orbit with electric propulsion.”
Bausch said SES is planning to issue bids in the coming weeks for a large satellite over Asia that will carry conventional propulsion. But after that procurement, he said, “we will consider bids for electric-propulsion satellites.”
Bausch said SES, which already has a presence in Asia, is not interested in bidding for Malaysian satellite operator Measat should that company be put up for sale, a development that industry officials said is likely. Eutelsat of Paris and Arabsat of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, have both signaled interest in Measat, industry officials said.
SES remains interested in purchasing Greek operator HellasSat if its owner, Greece’s OTE telecommunications operator, moves forward on the sale.
“OTE has not yet begun the process,” Bausch said. “We provided their ground stations and operated their satellite during the first year after launch and we will certainly be one of the candidates if they come on the market. It’s only a one-satellite company, however.”
SES and Eutelsat jointly invested in Solaris Mobile of Dublin, which launched a satellite with a large S-band antenna for mobile communications links in Europe that could be part of a terrestrial wireless network using signal boosters in populated areas.
In part because of the defect on the S-band antenna and in part because of the same difficulty in proving the business case that has stalled similar initiatives in Europe and the United States, Solaris has struggled.
Bausch said SES is not ready to invest in a new satellite but is willing to consider joining forces with Inmarsat of London, whose own EuropaSat S-band mobile broadband project has never left the drawing boards because of a lack of co-investors.
“For Solaris there are two possible avenues,” Bausch said. “One is broadband, with the required ground components. The second is broadcast. What is sure is that we will not invest in a second satellite until we have customers who also want to invest in the ground component.
“We have two times 15 megahertz of bandwidth. If we were to combine with Inmarsat, the two entities would have a combined two times 30 megahertz. This is a huge amount of bandwidth. I can see a kind of condosat [satellite sharing] arrangement between Solaris and Inmarsat.”