SES’s seven-satellite O3b mPower MEO constellation is scheduled for delivery by manufacturer Boeing in 2021. What comes after mPower? SES proposes a single design for a dual MEO/GEO satellite, fully programmable in orbit for any orbital slot. Airbus, Boeing and Thales Alenia Space are bidding for the multi-satellite order. Credit: SES

PARIS — Satellite fleet operator SES has selected Airbus, Boeing and Thales Alenia Space as finalists for a multi-satellite order envisioned as a step-change in the way satellites are contracted, built and launched, industry officials said.

SES declined to name the finalists, but in a wide-ranging discussion with journalists here during the recent World Satellite Business Week, organized by Euroconsult, SES Chief Executive Steve Collar and Chief Technical Officer Martin Halliwell gave the SES view on the unusual contracting process, the overall satcom landscape and how it needs to evolve.

SES’s new strategy comes at a time of unprecedented upheaval in the satcom world, characterized by a drop in geostationary-orbit satellite orders and an industry-wide guessing game over whether broadband constellations of satellites in low Earth orbit will be financed and built — and succeed as businesses.

SES’s thinking is summarized here. Each topic will be further developed in the coming weeks.

Takeaways from SES discussion

— The company has changed its opinion on GEO satellite lifespan, concluding there are no material savings to be found in ordering shorter-lived GEO satellites.

— After an initial interest, SES no longer believes that in-orbit refueling of satellites makes much economic sense compared to investing in new-generation satellites.

— A standardized new satellite product, likely to be contracted in 2019, would be launched into MEO or GEO, its orbital destination decided almost at launch, with software-defined payloads and a standard bus that could change slots at will with no performance penalty.

— The satellites will have 13- to 16-year operating lives, be all-electric and have a launch mass of 2,500-2,900 kilograms. They would be launched three at a time on a single rocket with a restartable upper stage to drop the spacecraft into the assigned MEO or GEO slots.

— The design would take satellites a step closer to the aircraft-construction model. No longer tailor-made, satellites could be sold to any operator. SES wants an open standard that could be used by Eutelsat, Hispasat or any other operator, enabling scale economies. If SES’s board of directors approves the new direction, a contract for the first group of these satellites could be signed in early 2019.

— The company acknowledges the unusual payment terms of its seven-satellite mPower contract with Boeing — no money down, payment only on delivery — but says its goal of fungible/flexible satellites should work well for manufacturers too, not just the satellite operators.

— SES has not changed its assessment of LEO constellations. It interprets the difficulties in financing at OneWeb, SpaceX Starlink, Telesat LEO and LeoSat as an acknowledgement of the dubious economics of a global LEO play.

— For SES, SpaceX has set a new standard for customer engagement, regardless of whether it’s making any money on launch services. SES hopes Arianespace will do likewise with its new Ariane 6 rocket.

— SES is more confident than ever that a deal with terrestrial 5G operators can be reached, one that protects U.S. satellite C-band customers, but with less spectrum. How much less is unclear.