Space transport services company SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Sunday, March 1, to place the first ever all-electric communications satellites into orbit.
The two communications satellites were built by Boeing and owned by Bermuda-based ABS and Paris-based Eutelsat Communications, which shared the manufacturing and launching costs of the satellites in a business arrangement prompted by technological innovation.
The pair of satellites was designed to deliver video, internet, data and mobile services worldwide and equipped with all-electric and lightweight engines instead of the chemical propulsion systems that are used conventionally.
Because the satellites run entirely on electric instead of fuel, they are cheaper and lighter to transport making it possible to launch them in a medium sized Falcon 9 rocket.
Fuel takes up 50 percent of the weight of most communications satellites with up to 5,000 pounds of liquid propellant being carried for in-space maneuvers. Boeing's innovation allows operators of satellites to order smaller spacecraft that can host additional communications capacity in order to replace the mass that is being free up by the removal of the fuel tanks.
"The value of electrical propulsion is that it allows the satellite operator to need much less fuel than when the satellite has chemical propulsion," said Eutelsat chief executive Michel de Rosen. "You can have a much lighter satellite, so that, in theory, the cost of your launch is much reduced."
ABS and Eutelsat reportedly paid less than $30 million each for the launching of their satellites, a price that according to ABS chief technology officer Ken Betaharon, who is a satellite industry veteran for over three decades, is "almost unheard of."
There are also disadvantages with using an electric propulsion system though. The satellites would take longer to reach their operational orbits. Instead of weeks, it will take the satellites months to arrive at their orbit approximately 22,300 miles above the Earth.
"With the electric thrusters, every increase in mass increases your orbit-raising time because the thrust is extremely low with these thrusters," Betaharon said.
Eutelsat's spacecraft will be part of a 25-member network that provides internet, video, mobile and communications services. It will also expand the company's reach into the U.S. ABS' new satellite, the company's seventh, will be positioned so it can provide services for customers in Africa, Europe and the Middle East.