Credit: Eutelsat

PARIS — Eutelsat’s Quantum, the first European software-defined satellite and the first geostationary-orbit platform from Airbus’s Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL), is not expected to launch before the second half of 2020 — a year behind where its schedule was as recently as May.

Eutelsat had been counting on Quantum to be in service in time to provide 13 million euros in revenue for Eutelsat’s current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Paris-based Eutelsat, which in May had forecasted a late-2019 launch, referred to a four-month slip in its end-year earnings report on July 31: http://bit.ly/2Mye7fP The delay now appears to be longer than that.

Eutelsat said the original issue was delays in the satellite’s production, more recently compounded by the difficulty launch-service provider Arianespace has had in pairing Quantum with another satellite to ride to geostationary orbit together on an Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket.

A Eutelsat spokeswoman said the company hopes for a launch between July and September 2020. Equipped with chemical, not electric, propulsion, Quantum will be able to reach its operating position several weeks after launch, reducing the amount of time from launch to first revenue.

Credit: Eutelsat

Most of Quantum’s Ku-band capacity is booked, with Peraton of the United States, a U.S. defense supplier, a major customer. Total Quantum revenue is expected to be 40 million euros per year on average, Eutelsat has said. 

Without referring to Quantum, Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel said in a Sept. 9 briefing that the current market for geostationary-orbit satellites is characterized by spacecraft like Viasat Inc.’s Viasat 3, weighing 6,500 kilograms, and a new crop of small-GEO satellites weighing less — sometimes much less — than 4,000 kilograms. Arianespace recently contracted to launch the 1,500-kilogram Ovzon-3 for Sweden’s Ovzon AB on an Ariane 5.

Quantum is expected to weigh 3,500 kilograms at launch.

Matching satellites that will be ready for launch at about the same time has long been an issue at Arianespace. In the 1990s it was considered a strength, enabling customers to share a ride to orbit and thus pay less than each would have paid alone.

But as the market has grown complicated, Arianespace and its majority owner, ArianeGroup, are moving to the Ariane 6 rocket, whose advantages including coming in two versions — a lighter Ariane 62 with two strap-on boosters for lighter GEO-orbit satellites and lower-orbit missions; and the Ariane 64 to carry heavier payloads including two large GEO-orbit spacecraft.

In addition to the diversity of the current commercial satellite sector, Arianespace and other commercial launch companies are suffering from a three-year slump in orders for GEO-orbit satellites. Fleet operators are contending with overcapacity in some markets and hesitating to invest in broadband capacity while they wait to see the effect on the market of broadband low-orbiting constellations.

The effect on Arianespace’s manifest has been dramatic. As of late September the company was still uncertain of whether it would launch one or two more Ariane 5 rockets this year, or perhaps none at all, depending on whether satellites were on time arriving at the launch pad.

Quantum completed thermal-vacuum testing. on Sept. 28. Credit: ESA

Quantum is a public-private partnership between Eutelsat, satellite prime contractor Airbus Defence and Space UK and the 22-nation European Space Agency (ESA). The original contract, signed in July 2015, was valued at 181 million euros ($201.5 million), including 71 million euros from ESA, mainly the UK Space Agency.

At the time, Quantum was scheduled for a 2018 launch.

Smallsat builder SSTL, which is owned by Airbus, has provided its first GEO-orbit platform, GMP-TL, for Quantum, in hopes of cracking into the GEO satellite market at a time when smaller satellites are in favor. SSTL said it delivered the platform to Airbus in January.

it is the software-defined payload, provided by Airbus, that sets Quantum apart. Though at just 450 kilograms and 5 kW of power, it offers what ESA and Airbus have said will be unprecedented mission flexibility and “complete mission overhaul” should Eutelsat wish to change the business plan after launch.

In an Oct. 4 statement, Airbus Defence and Space UK said: “Developing the cutting-edge technology for Quantum is challenging as it is a world first. Final integration of the payload is currently underway and we are on track to deliver the complete spacecraft in the first half of 2020.”

ESA said that Quantum completed its five weeks of thermal-vacuum tests, at Airbus’s Astrolabe facility in Toulouse, France, on Sept. 28. That is typically a key milestone. Next up is mechanical testing.

Despite the launch delay, Airbus credited the Quantum program with helping it develop technologies for Airbus’s OneSat software-defined satellite product. London-based mobile satellite communications fleet operator Inmarsat in May booked an inaugural order of three OneSat satellites: http://bit.ly/2WHAuVT