Can SpaceX success spark satellite industry revival?

SpaceX successfully launched the world’s most powerful spacecraft into orbit this week, an extraordinary achievement bearing fruit for innovation beyond space exploration. What the world learned this week has the potential to change the way satellites are launched forever and initiate significant cost savings so desperately desired by the struggling satellite industry.

The 3-booster, 27-engine Falcon Heavy rocket is capable of propelling 64 tons into space, twice as powerful as the previous record holder, meaning much larger satellites can be launched in the future. More remarkably, two out of three Falcon Heavy boosters returned unscathed and unmanned to earth to be recycled for another day – lowering launch costs dramatically.

Bringing broadband connectivity to rural regions is a major aspiration of entrepreneur extraordinaire Elon Musk – a vision shared by Google which resulted in the internet giant investing $1 billion in SpaceX in 2015. SpaceX plans to launch 12,000 low-cost, high-performance satellites into orbit by the middle of the next decade, bringing satellite-delivered connectivity to the 3 billion people worldwide with no access to internet. Technological breakthroughs will be required to reach this goal and Falcon Heavy was the first.

The three dominant satellite fleet operators, SES, Eutelsat and Intelsat, have all seen tumbling revenues in their TV sectors for years, all the while rejecting the knowledge that OTT video is the culprit. Satellite firms have therefore diverted efforts into winning communications contracts in sectors such as government and military operations, and we cannot remember the last time one of the big three announced a major broadcast win outside of MENA.

As we reported last week, Sky’s OTT plans spooked investors and caused stocks to crash at SES and Eutelsat. In Q3 2017, Luxembourg’s SES, the largest of the trio, reported a 3.8% fall in video revenues and a profit decline of 5.4%. Eutelsat posted revenues down 9.3% to $405.2 million, with its video sector slipping 0.8%. Intelsat is the most troubled of all with debt of $14.5 billion, posting revenues for the third quarter down 0.9% and net loss of $30.4 million.

The huge satellite payloads Falcon Heavy is capable of carrying are the sort used in major communications and navigational applications, not your basic broadcast TV, so lowering launch costs clearly benefits the market direction satellite firms are heading in. However, a single launch vehicle is more than capable of delivering multiple satellites into orbit (the record is 104 by a single rocket) so news of the next generation of rockets carrying even heavier payloads at lower costs should, in theory, bring good news for the wider satellite industry beyond massive communications satellites.

SpaceX reportedly signed up a bunch of communications companies for satellite launches even before this week’s launch of Falcon Heavy, which even Musk confessed had a 50:50 chance of success. That said, the mystery “Zuma” satellite payload carried by SpaceX last month, valued at billions of dollars, failed to make it into orbit and the satellite remains unclaimed.

There are also electronic propulsion technologies being explored to bring cost savings to the satellite industry by replacing reaction engines with electric thrusters – consuming six times less propellant mass than chemical propulsion. Surprisingly, as an electric vehicle pioneer, Musk has been quiet in the field of electronic propulsion for satellites, likely due to the very low thrust generated by the solar-powered technique.

Research from Eutelsat states by using electronic propulsion, it can reduce the cost of a high throughput satellite (HTS) from €4 million ($4.7 million) per Gbps of throughput to €1 million ($1.2 million) per Gbps – slashing the cost of a Ka-band satellite four-fold. A Eutelsat Ka-band satellite has some 90 Gbps throughput, working out at €360 million ($427 million) per satellite. For its entire fleet of 39 geostationary satellites, the bill comes to over €14 billion ($16.6 billion), potentially cut to just €3.5 billion ($4.1 million) with the help of electronic orbit raising technologies – which is just one method among many helping Eutelsat towards reaching this goal.

Yet seeking solutions to drive down launch costs is a side effect of the emergence of high throughput satellites, which offer a much reduced per-megahertz pricing compared to traditional satellites.

Elon Musk doesn’t feature in Faultline Online Reporter all too often, but Falcon Heavy may be the first of many marks made by Musk on the digital entertainment and communications world.