Northern Sky Research

Versatility in Satellite Manufacturing

Apr 21st, 2015 by Carolyn Belle   More from this Analyst | Profile

A peek into the RFPs issued to prime satellite manufacturers over the last year quickly shows how far the industry has come from the cookie-cutter satellites of past decades. Similarly, manufacturer portfolios have developed into a diverse set of options that enable an operator to tailor the spacecraft to their unique demands more than ever before.

In some ways this is the natural evolution of a market that only began in earnest 30 years ago. Yet the fact remains that end-user markets coupled to CAPEX determine commercial satellite design, and it is these factors that are currently driving versatility in the satellite marketplace. Traditionally, end-user markets have been stable enough to satisfy the operator and investors that a satellite designed today, launched in 3 years, and retired in 18-20 years would be able to address a profitable market for the duration of its service life. Today the story has changed. Given the rate of global development, operators now face both rising competition and declining certainty in the longevity of target markets, leading to fear of trapped capacity as demand shifts regionally or to new applications.

As a result of this uncertainty, NSR’s Satellite Manufacturing and Launch Services, 5th Edition established a convergence between manufacturers’ provision of a broad tool-belt of capabilities with operator willingness to adopt non-traditional designs. A trend is emerging for operators to blend technologies in unique ways and co-locate different payloads to address multiple markets with a single satellite. During the 2015-2024 period, 44% of commercial GEO communications satellites are expected to adopt HTS or hybrid HTS/FSS payloads. Over the same years, 28% of commercial GEO communications satellites will use hybrid chemical/electrical or full electrical propulsion in lieu of the traditional chemical-only.

Even as these technologies mature, the next phase of capability diversification has already emerged as on-board flexibility – an overarching concept that includes components already developed but rarely employed as well as entirely novel technologies. On-board flexibility, in the form of steerable/reconfigurable beams to redirect coverage, multi-point amplifiers to reallocate power, or on-board processors to dynamically manage traffic, has become more valuable in light of the challenge to ensure high fill rates throughout a satellite lifetime. 2015 contracts have already highlighted these trends: the first commercial GEO communications contract of the year, between New York Broadband LLC and Boeing, included steerable beams and reconfigurable power. A mere month later, SES contracts with Airbus Defence & Space for SES-14 and SES-16 each included an element of on-orbit flexibility (digital processor and steerable beams, respectively).

This growth of on-board flexibility and combination of many flexible sub-systems and components into a single highly adaptable satellite could become an important turning point in design, transitioning from ground customization to in-orbit customization. Procurement of the first Quantum satellite between Eutelsat and Airbus Defence & Space/SSTL is expected later this year, promising to take one step closer to such a software-defined satellite.

Despite widespread interest, the key stumbling block of the flexible marketplace remains the tradeoff of price with capabilities. Manufacturers have found creative ways to introduce new tools and flexible components at low or no added cost, but many feasible capabilities lay beyond today’s operator-acceptable price points. While previous reticence to pay a premium for added flexibility could be approaching a turning point, cost will remain the main complication moving forward.

Bottom Line

As operators continue to seek ways to ensure their satellites remain relevant long after design and launch, manufacturers will be challenged to provide ever more options and a balance of ground and space customization – at the right price. The ongoing exploitation of HTS payloads and electric/hybrid propulsion, alongside growing prevalence of on-board flexibility, will build the foundation for a flexible architecture of assets that can be compiled and recompiled in different ways to address shifting demand and opportunities. Operators who invest in such capabilities will be better equipped to adapt to changing markets and new competition.