SES plans to revamp its geostationary-orbit satellite procurement policy: 18 months, not four years, from contract to orbit; 7- 8-year operating lives, not 18 years; fewer milspec, more commercial components; around 2,000-kg launch mass for stacking several on a single launch. Credit: SES

BREMEN, Germany — Satellite fleet operator SES on Oct. 25 served notice to satellite manufacturers that the company its revamping its procurement practices, moving to all-digital payloads, commercial components, and a 50% reduction in satellite service life and launch mass.

SES expects to order 4-5 geostationary-orbit satellites per year in the coming years, which may be more than any other single fleet operator.

With a current 56-satellite fleet, that would not be unexpected just to replace existing capacity. But SES Chief Technical Officer Martin Halliwell said the satellites will bear scant resemblance to recent procurements.

Here’s the profile of tomorrow’s geostationary-orbit satellite for SES:

It weighs around 2,000 kilograms, is delivered on orbit 18 months after contract signature — which means a 14-month procurement if it takes an all-electric design four months from launch to reach its operating station.

$50 million to build, 2,000 kilograms, 18-month procurement

It is launched in stacked formation with two or three other satellites aboard the same rocket and is designed to operate for just seven or eight years. Halliwell said he could envision a per-satellite capital investment of around $55 million, assuming a $50 million or $60 million launch cost, divided by three, and a sub-$50-million cost for the manufacture of the spacecraft.

Addressing the Space Tech Expo Europe exhibition here, Halliwell used the SES-12 as an example of a large, powerful spacecraft whose characteristics will soon belong to history.

It won’t exactly be the last of its kind, even for SES. The Airbus Defense and Space built SES-12 is scheduled for launch in early 2018 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The SES-17, under construction by Thales Alenia Space and scheduled launch in 2020, will be even bigger.

But the direction of travel for SES is smaller, shorter-lived satellites capable of moving from one region to another, and one frequency to another, during its lifetime depending on SES’s business requirements.

SES CTO Martin Halliwell used the SES-12 satellite as an example of what SES will no longer be doing in future geostationary-satellite procurements. Credit: SES

“It’s a combination of wide-beam and HTS [high-throughput] capacity. It takes us a year to design the spacecraft and four years to build it and it has an 18-year lifetime — an incredibly long cycle,” Halliwell said of SES-12. Nobody has any idea of where we are going to be in 25 years.

“And look at the amount of kit you have to put together to build a satellite of this size — thousands of switches, hundreds of TWTAs, over 4,500 coax cables on this satellite. It’s around 4,500 kilograms. It’s a monster, really big.”

Halliwell said SES views SES-12 as a bridge between its analog past and digital future. About 25% of the satellite’s capacity is routed through the digital transparent processor — not enough for future satellites.

“We want full digital processing from the low-noise amplifier input on the spacecraft right through to the digital transmit array,” Halliwell said. “We want everything digitized, everything programmable on orbit.”

Shorter service lives requires much lower per-satellite launch costs

Reducing geostationary-orbit satellites’ service lives for more-rapid technology refresh has been a debate in the industry for several years. The problem: How to make a satellite half as expensive, meaning in principle half as reliable, at half the weight? And how do you get a launch that is half the price? The logic falls apart unless all these things are in place.

Halliwell said SES is willing to make the tradeoffs needed to produce a standardized, generic satellite that, if produced in large enough quantities, might be as reliable in orbit as a satellite using military-specification-grade components, and not the commercial parts SES is planning.

Launch costs are coming down. How far is not yet known, but SpaceX, ArianeGroup’s Arianespace and International Launch Services are designing lower-cost vehicles. Blue Origin is also designing a vehicle that is supposed to be much less costly than today’s vehicles.

“The shortened lifetime allows us to start thinking: Can we run with a commercial-grade parts list? We’re looking for a stacked launch capability and a mass of about two tonnes, with maybe four satellites stacked at a time.”

Whether the standardized platform can deliver on its promise with only SES as a regular customer is unclear. Halliwell said SES would like the industry to adopt it.

“We want to make this non-exclusive,” Halliwell said. “This is not just an SES architecture, ring-fenced by SES. We would like this to be a non-exclusive way forward. For a wide-beam mission over Western Europe, the very same spacecraft could be used for multi-beam HTS over Asia.”

Managing the future satellite’s bandwidth on the fly — repurposing it to other users when the aircraft customer flies out of coverage, for example — will be key to the future satellite business model, Halliwell said. He referred to satellite capacity of the future as being booked, for some applications, on a “time slot” formula so that users release bandwidth no longer needed. Halliwell said SES is working with MIT on how best to make this happen.

“The next wave of satellites that SES builds for GEO will be along these lines,” he said. “And everything I just told you about GEO we are now doing in MEO with Boeing.”

Under a contract that industry officials valued at $750 million, Boeing is building seven medium-Earth-orbit second-generation O3b satellites. Each will have 4,000 adaptable, steerable beams.

“It’s a major step forward for us and for the industry,” Halliwell said of the future GEO product line. “The relationship with the vendors is going to be very different from the past. In the past it was a case of: Here’s a specification, go build it. The SES position here is not just for the spacecraft and the technology, but for the managed service capability we are trying to build.”

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Peter B. de Selding
Peter B. de Selding

Peter de Selding is a Co-Founder and editor for He started SpaceIntelReport in 2017 after 26 years as the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews where he covered the commercial satellite, launch and the international space businesses. He is widely considered the preeminent reporter in the space industry and is a must read for space executives. Follow Peter @pbdes

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