Eutelsat EOR technology set to save satellites $billions

Satellite fleet operator Eutelsat claims to have broken the record for the fastest satellite electric orbit raising (EOR) time – a decades old propulsion technique that new technologies are helping make a viable replacement for reaction engines and other methods. Rival satellite firm SES projects that half of all new satellites will be fitted with an electric propulsion system of some sort by 2020.

Eutelsat and Airbus, the French manufacturer of the newly launched Eutelsat 172B satellite, achieved the feat in 4 months following the launch on June 1, although we could not find any previous records to compare this self-proclaimed title to.

An Airbus representative explained to Faultline Online Reporter that what makes the launch particularly impressive is that the two previously recorded EOR launches, concerning much smaller and lighter satellites, took around 6 to 7 months to put in the right place, while Eutelsat 172B is significantly heavier, at a launch mass of 3,550 kg. In addition, it claims to be the first EOR for a high capacity satellite, but a brief background read of Electric Orbit technologies reveals that Russian satellites have been using the method since the 1970s, but it seems Eutelsat and Airbus have excluded these non-high capacity launches from the history books.

Cost savings are arguably more crucial than the time frame, however, as the new craft’s electric thrusters consumed almost six times less propellant mass than a satellite with chemical propulsion, according to Airbus. The potential savings for satellite operators and their contracted vendors here is immense, particularly as these firms are desperate to cut costs given the debt piles in the $billions that have become synonymous with the satellite industry.

Eutelsat’s own research states that 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 EOR technologies – which is just one method among many helping Eutelsat towards reaching this goal.

Electric propulsion is widely used today, but what took the technology’s widespread adoption so long? The clues for this, without getting too deep into rocket science, may lie in what Eutelsat and Airbus claim contributed to their record breaking EOR.

The pair attribute the accomplishment to a variety of technological developments, including relatively higher thrust technology known as Hall Effect Thrusters, a pair of deployable robotic arms to control thrust direction, 3D printing techniques, and the WALIS (Wide Angle Localization Integrated System) network of ground stations to monitor and control operations until the satellite reached geostationary orbit.

But Faultline Online Reporter is more interested in what the satellite is capable of when it reaches its destination. The Eutelsat 172B HTS will be put into action next month for delivering broadcast, telecommunications and in-flight broadband services to customers in the Asia Pacific, although no customers have been publicly named yet.

HTS satellites bring a new problem to satellite operators, as they offer a much reduced per-megahertz pricing compared to traditional satellites. Satellite firms have therefore adapted to offset the lower pricing points brought about by HTS, particularly with added pressure from the emergence of new satellites in areas where supply is already exceeding demand, by reducing manufacture and launch costs and also offering services in new areas mentioned such as in-flight broadband.

Eutelsat CTO, Yohann Leroy, said, “Eutelsat 172B confirms the relevance of Eutelsat’s early adoption of electric propulsion technology to optimize capex. In combining electric propulsion, High Throughput capacity, robotic arms and 3D printing techniques, our new satellite also reflects Europe’s capability to push the envelope of innovation in order to increase the competitiveness of our business.”

Head of Space Systems at Airbus, Nicolas Chamussy, said, “We are the first company to demonstrate full electric propulsion for satellites of this size and capacity, enabling their launch in the most cost-efficient manner. Furthermore, with our system design, operation strategy and the plasma thruster technology we implement, we have completed the fastest electric orbit raising ever from transfer to geostationary orbit, which will allow Eutelsat to put its electric satellite into service in record time.”