PARIS — The commercial space industry looks at the number of GEO-orbit satellites ordered each year as a proxy for the market’s health. But this measure has lost much of its meaning in the current market.
When a GEO-orbit satellite can include the 300-kilogram Astranis, with the improbable business plan of serving just Alaska with broadband; and Ovzon AB‘s 1,500-kilogram Ovzon-3, for commercially provided government and military communications, the unit value of GEO orders falls apart.
As of mid-September, there were 11 GEO-orbit satellites ordered by commercial and governmental satellite operators. That compares with six or seven ordered in all of 2018.
Satellite manufacturers and launch-service providers attending Euroconsult’s World Satellite Business Week here Sept. 9-13 agreed that a rebound in the GEO market had begun. But they also agreed it would never return to the 24-satellite-per-year average of a decade ago.
Several companies said the 2019 tally could surpass 20 satellites.
Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel said his company forecasts that GEO satellite orders would reach 23 in 2019.
That’s clearly a rebound from the past three years. But the numbers are not what they appear. Arianespace, for example, tends to view satellites in terms of an equivalent mass occupying the heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket’s upper, for heavier payloads, and the lower berth for lighter satellites.
Anything below 4,000 kilograms is going to be a problem for Ariane 5 because it will require finding a very large satellite for the upper berth to make the business case for the Ariane 5 rocket.
Arianespace: 23 GEO orders this year equivalent to 15-16 standard Ariane 5 satellites
Israel said here Sept. 9 that by Arianespace’s reckoning, the 23 GEO-orbit satellites to be ordered in 2019 would be equivalent to just 15 or 16 “normal” satellites using the historic GEO-unit measure. The 11 GEO satellites ordered as of mid-September translate to eight Ariane slots, he said.
In addition to Ovzon-3, which Arianespace has contracted to launch, mobile satellite services provider Inmarsat is purchasing the three inaugural units of Airbus Defence and Space’s new OneSat software-defined spacecraft.
The OneSat platforms are designed to be stacked on top of each other and are equivalent to a single upper-berth Ariane 5 payload.
In addition to Inmarsat, another bulk satellite order may come this year from SES of Luxembourg, which is reviewing Airbus and Thales Alenia Space options for either Airbus’s OneSat or Thales Alenia Space’s product, the newly announced Space Inspire.
SES and Intelsat are also expected to order four satellites each as part of any agreement with U.S. regulators on auctioning a portion of the C-band spectrum that satellite operators use in the United States. Each company would launch three of them and keep a fourth as a ground spare.
SES and Intelsat, as part of the C-Band Alliance, have promised U.S. regulators that all these new C-band satellites would be U.S.-built. Israel said Arianespace has received no indication that it would be prevented from bidding on these launches.
Another factor making GEO satellites a no-longer-valid measure of the market’s health is of course the non-GEO-orbit satellites that are will dominate both the Arianespace and competitor SpaceX’s manifests in the coming months.
Arianespace is managing the launches of 21 Russian Soyuz rockets for the OneWeb LEO-broadband constellation. The first has been completed, and the remaining 20 are expected to occur, each with 30-plus 150-kilogram OneWeb satellites, starting in mid-December.
It’s a contract valued at around $1.1 billion.
SpaceX: Up to 27 more Starlink launches by end-2020, but we won’t favor Starlink over other customers
The SpaceX situation is more complicated as is Starlink broadband constellation, ultimately to comprise more than 1,000 satellites, is an in-house transaction, with SpaceX responsible for most of the satellite components.
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said the company, which launched the first 60 operational satellites in May, could perform 2-3 more launches this year.
With SpaceX, like Arianespace, still suffering from the decline in GEO launches, SpaceX will be able to ramp Starlink launches in 2020, with around 24 planned.
SpaceX does not have the same satellite-pairing headaches as Arianespace. The Falcon 9 rocket, unlike Ariane 5, was not designed around the need to launch two satellites at a time.
That makes it easier for SpaceX to launch customers as they are ready, but the three-year dip in GEO orders has left SpaceX, like Arianespace, in the position of waiting for customers to arrive ready to launch.
Arianespace has tried to use the Starlink constellation as a wedge between SpaceX and commercial satellite operators, saying SpaceX was becoming a competitor to them with Starlink. In addition, SpaceX may naturally favor its own satellites over its other customers’ missions.
Shotwell denied this, saying that SpaceX would not let Starlink delay the scheduled launches of other customers.
“I am counting on some [additional] Starlink launches this year,” Shotwell said here Sept. 10 during the Euroconsult conference. “If a couple of customers move out, I’ll have more Starlink launches — maybe up to four this year. But we won’t push a customer out for that, so we’ll wait and see what the end of the year looks like and see what we can fit in.”
SpaceX has not disclosed its internal accounting for the Starlink missions. The company has recently been advertising missions at $50 million apiece.
Even at $40 million per launch, 28 Starlink launches over 15 months would be valued at $1.12 billion — about the same as the 21-launch OneWeb Soyuz package with Arianespace.