Northern Sky Research

GEO Satcom Saving or Maximizing?

Apr 24th, 2013

The GEO satcom community is currently enjoying a considerably widening array of technological choices (and less enjoyable longer trade-off analyses). NSR believes those new technologies will accelerate the split of the satellites in two categories: one driven primarily by payload maximization and the other driven primarily by savings.

For the 3rd edition of NSR’s upcoming report on Satellite Manufacturing and Launch Services, NSR will release a propulsion-type forecast as well as a payload power forecast for GEO satcom. NSR identified the following 4 payload power categories:

  1. < 6kW
  2. 6kW - 9kW
  3. 9kW - 14kW
  4. > 14kW

Altogether, the first and second categories (<6kW & 6-9kW) represent less than 50% of the satellites launched/to be launched in the 2011-13 period. They used to represent much higher shares but as bigger satellites became available, proposing better cost per TPE, those power categories became less competitive. This shift was stronger for the 6 to 9kW category whose cost per TPE, its competitive advantage, used to be the best.

Nowadays, satellites in this range have a low payload capability and end-up with a higher cost per TPE. They obviously have their pros (such as their reactivity and low risk level - low CAPEX), and they still represent a decent share of the market. Typically those satellites are built to address a small & specific niche or limited market.

The third and fourth categories (9-14kW & 14kW+) represent more than 50% of the satellites launched/to be launched in the 2011-13 period. Both categories are recent (14kW+ is nascent) and have seen their share growing fast thanks to a better cost per TPE/Gbps.

Nowadays, satellites in this range have a large payload capability and end-up with a lower cost per TPE. Typically those satellites are built to address large markets, often in competition with other satellites. The third category (9-14kW) used to be the one with the best cost per TPE/Gbps but, in the long run, platforms in the 4th segment (14kW+) should grab this competitive advantage.

The new technologies available, and especially Electrical-Propulsion for on-orbit raising, should accelerate the split between the first & second categories and the 3rd and 4th. For example, Boeing’s 702-SP platform main competitive advantage is cost savings through the use of a cheap launch vehicle. But the payload power is limited (<7.5kW).

NSR believes that bigger satellites will use Electric-Propulsion (full or Hybrid) in a different way, by pushing the envelope, to deal with the launch vehicle bottleneck. Launch services’ choice for satellites weighting more than 6.2-6.5 tons is reducing to a monopoly situation above a certain threshold (a situation that most satellite operators will avoid). Satellites using a higher share of Electric-Propulsion could be considerably more powerful (bigger payloads), thus proposing a lower cost per TPE/Gbps, while featuring stable masses, thus avoiding the launch vehicle bottleneck. Thus, Electric-Propulsion could be used to maximize the payload.

Bottom Line

Both drivers are related to cost, but their paradigm and ultimate goals are different. One aims at decreasing the fixed costs of a project addressing a limited market. The other one, addressing large markets, aims at improving the product’s value (the throughput) through increasing its volume.

In choosing between Chemical, Hybrid or full Electric-Propulsion, satellite operators will be affected by a set of drivers, the strongest being the technology’s heritage and the satellite’s goal (replacement or new market?). Both have a strong impact in NSR’s forecast of GEO satcom propulsion-type.

Information for this article was extracted from NSR's report Satellite Manufacturing & Launch Services 3rd Edition