PARIS — Boeing has joined the growing list of manufacturers offering smaller satellites for geostationary orbit, saying new digital payload technology can reduce the weight of its typical communications spacecraft by half.
Boeing’s small GEO satellites will weigh roughly 1,900 kilograms unfueled, relying on reprogrammable, software-defined payloads that are considerably smaller than earlier technologies, Eric Jensen, Boeing’s vice president of global commercial satellite sales, said in an interview.
Jensen said Boeing designed its small GEO product as a solution for operators reluctant to invest in traditional, multi-ton comsats in the midst of changing market conditions and the introduction of megaconstellations.
Small GEOs can be a good fit for niche opportunities where faster fill rates, smaller geographic footprints, and lower costs are necessary for getting the business case to close. Manufacturers in recent years have begun offering geostationary communications satellites weighing a few hundred kilograms up to around 2,000 kilograms. Terran Orbital, Astranis, Maxar Technologies and the recently formed Saturn Satellite Networks are building such satellites, having all secured orders within the last 12 months.
Boeing’s small GEO satellite is based on the O3b mPower spacecraft it is building for SES’s medium-Earth-orbit constellation of high-throughput satellites. Jensen said Boeing’s past two years working on the seven-satellite O3b mPower system gives it a head start in an increasingly crowded field.
“The only things that we’re really changing from our MEO variant for our small GEO product are the addition of reflectors, a tweak to the propulsion system and thermal management systems,” he said. “It’s high fidelity in terms of our progress to date technically.”
Jensen said the small GEO satellite is part of a new Boeing 702X product line that has been under development for more than five years.
The 702X series consists of the small GEO and legacy Boeing 702 Small Power and Medium Power platforms “married” to Boeing’s latest digital payload technology.
“I don’t think that what we’re revealing is the one satellite to rule them all, but it certainly is a step in that direction,” Jensen said. Raenaurd Turpin, chief technical officer of commercial satellites at Boeing, said the company found it could use digitized technologies and 3D-printed components to shrink a 3,750-kilogram satellite, unfueled, to 1,900 kilograms dry mass.
What used to require around 4,500 components and nearly 1,300 radio-frequency cables now needs just 348 components, and 64 cables, he said. The 702X small GEO satellites also use solid state components instead of tricky-to-build traveling wave tube amplifiers, he said.
Designed for a 15-year mission life, Boeing’s first small GEO can be ready for delivery in under three years from a customer order, Jensen said.
Jensen said Boeing is offering ground segment solutions to support the 702X line, ranging from spacecraft health-and status monitoring all the way to full network management and turnkey ground infrastructure. Boeing can scale the 702X up to a large GEO satellite with a terabit of capacity if desired.
“The beauty of this payload is that because it’s so simple and you can hold it in your hand, when you want to scale it up it’s literally modular; you just put more tiles together, add a bigger reflector, change your software onboard and you go,” he said.
Turpin said each 702X payload module uses a phased array antenna that can digitally generate 5,000 beams and tailor power, location and sensitivity as needed. He said three 702X small GEO satellites can launch on a single SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
SES, as the inaugural customer for the 702X line, has yet to announce a launch provider for the planned 2021 launch of its first O3b mPower satellites. Its satellites, weighing 1,800 kilograms each, are lighter than Boeing’s small GEO design, according to Stewart Sanders, executive vice president and O3b mPower lead at SES.
Sanders said SES chose the 702X for O3b mPower because competing alternatives were generally “high performance at one or two limited things” instead of offering the versatility SES desired.
Some proposals, for example, were very good at downlinking large amounts of data, but poor at uplinking. That meant they would be useful for residential broadband, which is download-heavy, but bad at supporting drones that need to uplink video and other large data files.
Sanders said SES is imminently close to announcing its launch plans for O3b mPower. He mentioned SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, Arianespace’s Soyuz and future Ariane 6, and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ upcoming H3 as vehicles that could launch the mPower constellation. O3b mPower satellites have a 12-year design life and will use electric propulsion, he said.