Although the technology driving in-orbit satellite servicing has existed for decades, only now has the market evolved to a point where it is economically feasible as a business. According to a panel of experts at a Washington Space Business Roundtable (WSBR) discussion on Feb. 12, the convergence of lower launch costs and shifting priorities for Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) satellite operators has made the idea of in-orbit servicing more commercially viable than in past years.
Tim Deaver, vice president of development for SES Government Solutions, pointed to the dropping cost of satellite capacity as a critical element of the shift. As the industry experiences a downturn in the price of bandwidth (and thus, the revenue any one satellite generates), operators are brainstorming new ways to make the most out of their aging assets, he said.
The panelists agreed this is particularly true for operators that own a limited number of satellites critical to their businesses. Company leaders are seeking new, more creative paths to extend their growth trajectories and, in the process, are softening their traditionally risk-averse postures, said Joe Anderson, director of mission extension vehicle services at Orbital ATK.
This changing mindset coincides with the efforts of new-age launch providers such as SpaceX, which have come a long way in making launch costs cheaper for their customers. “As we see the cost come down for launch, we see the cost coming down for refueling capability. The two points cross and you can make economic sense out of it,” Deaver said.
The proposition seems to be most valuable and attractive to operators of GEO satellites. Such spacecraft are among the most expensive to manufacture and launch, but the majority are also able to operate well beyond their 15-year design lives. The only reason they are usually decommissioned, said Anderson, is because they run out of fuel. If refueling is an option — and if it’s both safe and reasonably priced — then it’s financially sound to squeeze a bit more revenue out of the asset.
It’s true that NASA has been working on technology relevant to such services for quite some time. Already the International Space Station (ISS) uses robotics operations nearly every day to maintain its external payload attachments. Both Commercial Resupply Missions (CRS) 10 and 13 had scientific payloads that were unpacked from the Dragon trunk using robotics, said Al Tadros, SSL’s vice president of space infrastructure and civil space.
That said, other technological elements have also matured to make on-orbit servicing spacecraft safer, cheaper, faster, and therefore more realistic. One example Tadros highlighted is solar electric propulsion, which is now emerging into mainstream satellite buses and provides improved “efficiency for transferring between satellites.” Solar electric propulsion also uses 10 times less propellant than comparable chemical propulsion systems, according to NASA.
But because this market is still so nascent, companies that are currently building on-orbit servicing spacecraft are limiting their missions to relatively simple tasks such as refueling. Currently, Orbital ATK’s refueling spacecraft is compatible with about 80 percent of satellites operating in GEO, Anderson said. It will take time, though, before the company can do more than just that. “Satellites that are there today aren’t enabled for a whole lot of repair missions,” he admitted.
But in the future, as manufacturers begin to build their satellites with servicing in mind, a wider variety of missions will arise. “Even [for] simple things like [rescuing] spacecraft launched to the incorrect orbit — there are opportunities there when errors happen,” said Todd Master, program master of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Tactical Technology Office.
Tadros predicts that eventually the industry will launch satellites that are “payload agnostic,” centered around a standardized form factor. “If you can actually start deploying payloads and adding to on-orbit satellites right now, [there’s] huge potential,” Tadros said. “It’s so attractive it could become one of the … fastest growing parts of satellite servicing.”
In the meantime, Master recommended that commercial and government entities come together to establish better standards and ensure they aren’t “jeopardizing this infant industry.” Anderson warned, however, that such regulations should be developed carefully and incrementally. “Just because we can add an extra regulation doesn’t mean we should,” he said.
SatADSL, a provider of Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) services via satellite, announced a new service for Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) which will enable them to deliver satellite-based connectivity without investment in physical infrastructure. Using SatADSL’s multi-band Cloud-based Service Delivery Platform (C-SDP), the solution allows MNOs to outsource their satellite services by providing a complete Operations and Business Support System (OSS/BSS) platform. Initially, the offering will target MNOs in Africa, where terrestrial infrastructure remains limited due to vast rural areas.
Operating on Ka-, Ku- or C-band, the C-SDP includes a network management system that allows IP traffic to be shaped and routed from and to different hubs, and an in-built customer management tool enabling MNOs to manage and monitor their own customers. A hotspot management system allows MNOs to configure, manage and monitor remote hotspot networks through the cloud, while a billing system enables online payments and automatic billing, the company stated.
“Satellite is a crucial tool for MNOs looking to serve new markets and launch additional revenue-generating services, such as business-to-business applications,” said Michel Dothey, Chief Commercial Officer (CCO) and co-founder of SatADSL. “While high investment costs, the risk of vendor lock-in and the uncertainty of the satellite market put many MNOs off investing in their own satellite infrastructure in the past, this new innovative solution mitigates these drawbacks.”
Satcube Ku deployed, ready for operation next to a boarding pass and passport for scale. Photo: STS Global.
STS Global announced a new partnership with the Swedish satellite company Satcube. Under this agreement, STS Global will promote and distribute the company’s Satcube Ku satellite terminal product in the United States. This partnership comes after successful testing of the terminal in November 2017, during which the lightweight terminal delivered a throughput of 10 Mbps downstream and 10 Mbps upstream via the Intelsat Epic 29e satellite.
According to Satcube, the terminal is optimized for use with High Throughput Satellites (HTS). With a compact form factor, the terminal fits into approved cabin baggage and weighs only 8 kg (15.4 lbs).
Unveiled for the first time last September, the terminal is Satcube’s first commercial product. It boasts a three-hour transmit time, optional hot-swappable batteries, an iDirect or UHP Networks modem, Wi-Fi, a flat antenna, an amplifier (high efficiency GaN SSPA), positioning system, upconverter, downconverter, and a heat pipe cooling system.
Steve Collar, SES’ new CEO and president. Photo: SES.
SES’ board of directors announced its decision to appoint a new president and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and a new Chief Financial Officer (CFO) effective April 5. Steve Collar, who is currently CEO of SES Networks, will become the new SES president and CEO, while Andrew Browne, who was until recently CFO of O3b Networks and CFO of SES between 2010 and 2013, has been reappointed as the next SES CFO. Over the coming weeks, they will work closely with Karim Michel Sabbagh, the current president and CEO, and Padraig McCarthy, the current CFO, in order to ensure a smooth handover.
Karim Michel Sabbagh announced during the company’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) that he would be stepping down from his role to spend more time with his family and pursue new interests. Padraig McCarthy also informed the board of his intention to retire during 2018; he will remain at the disposal of the company thereafter.
The other members of the executive committee, Ferdinand Kayser (CEO, SES Video), Christophe De Hauwer (Chief Strategy and Development Officer), Martin Halliwell (Chief Technology Officer), Evie Roos (Chief Human Resources Officer) and John Purvis (Chief Legal Officer), all remain in place. The company has not yet announced a successor to Steve Collar as CEO of SES Networks.
“I am excited to lead SES into its next phase of development, building on the achievements of 2017 and the foundations that have been laid,” Collar said. “Our focus will be on strong execution in the short term, continuing to roll out differentiated services to our customers, and staying focused on the long term delivery of our forward-looking strategy.”
SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California. Photo: Pixabay.
SpaceX conducted a test fire Sunday at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California ahead of its fourth launch of the year. On Feb 17, the company will orbit the Paz satellite, built by Airbus for Spanish company HisdeSat, as well as the first prototypes for SpaceX’s own broadband constellation, Starlink.