ULA, SpaceX Win Contracts to Launch Satellites for SES in 2022

 In Space
File photo of a previous Atlas 5 launch in the “531” configuration with three solid rocket boosters. Credit: United Launch Alliance

SES has select­ed United Launch Alliance and SpaceX to launch up to five new com­mer­cial C‑band com­mu­ni­ca­tions satel­lites from Cape Canaveral in 2022 aboard Atlas 5 and Falcon 9 rock­ets, offi­cials announced Wednesday.

Two Boeing-built com­mu­ni­ca­tions satel­lites will launch togeth­er on a ULA Atlas 5 rocket, and two tele­com craft made by Northrop Grumman will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, accord­ing to SES, a global com­mu­ni­ca­tions satel­lite oper­a­tor based in Luxembourg.

The SES 18 and 19 satel­lites, based on Northrop Grumman’s GEOStar 3 satel­lite plat­form, will launch stacked togeth­er on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in 2022, SES said. SES also award­ed SpaceX a con­tract to launch anoth­er C‑band satel­lite if required.

The SES 20 and 21 com­mu­ni­ca­tions satel­lites are slated to launch in tandem aboard a ULA Atlas 5 rocket, also in 2022, SES said.

SES ordered the four satellites from Boeing and Northrop Grumman in June to replace C‑band capac­i­ty being tran­si­tioned to 5G cel­lu­lar net­work ser­vices by the Federal Communications Commission. At the same time, Intelsat ordered six new C‑band com­mu­ni­ca­tions satel­lites from Maxar and Northrop Grumman as part of its C‑band tran­si­tion plan. Launch ser­vices con­tracts for the new Intelsat satel­lites have not been announced.

SES said it con­sid­ered only U.S. launch­ers when award­ing the launch ser­vices con­tracts, and having the new satel­lites in geo­sta­tion­ary orbit on time is a high pri­or­i­ty. That essen­tial­ly left ULA and SpaceX as the only com­pa­nies eli­gi­ble for the con­tracts.

Financial terms for the launch con­tracts were not dis­closed by SES, SpaceX, or ULA.

Suzanne Ong, an SES spokesper­son, said the divi­sion of launch con­tracts between ULA and SpaceX — rivals in the U.S. launch busi­ness — fit the dif­fer­ent offer­ings pro­vid­ed by the Atlas 5 and Falcon 9 rock­ets.

The Atlas 5 rocket will deploy the SES 20 and 21 satel­lites into a higher orbit, uti­liz­ing the long-dura­tion, mul­ti­ple-restart capa­bil­i­ty of the rocket’s Centaur upper stage. That will place the satel­lites closer to their final oper­at­ing posi­tions in geo­sta­tion­ary orbit more than 22,000 miles (nearly 36,000 kilo­me­ters) over the equa­tor.

SES 20 and 21 will be built by Boeing and based on the Boeing 702SP space­craft bus with all-elec­tric propul­sion. Electric thrusters are more effi­cient than con­ven­tion­al rocket engines, allow­ing the satel­lite to need less fuel during its mis­sion. That results in a lighter satel­lite.

But the elec­tric thrusters do not have as much thrust as a liquid-fueled thruster, so it takes longer for a satel­lite with all-elec­tric propul­sion to reach geo­sta­tion­ary orbit.

“The Boeing 702SP satel­lites, rely­ing only on elec­tri­cal propul­sion, would take longer to reach des­ig­nat­ed geo­sta­tion­ary orbit if launched on SpaceX,” Ong said in response to ques­tions from Spaceflight Now. “This is the reason why ULA is launch­ing Boeing satel­lites and SpaceX is launch­ing the NG (Northrop Grumman) satel­lites.”

Jessica Rye, a ULA spokesper­son, said the SES 20 and 21 satel­lites will launch on the “531” vari­ant of the Atlas 5 rocket with a 5‑meter pay­load fair­ing and three strap-on solid rocket boost­ers. That con­fig­u­ra­tion has flown three times to date, and is set to launch a fourth time in September with a clas­si­fied pay­load for the National Reconnaissance Office, the U.S. government’s spy satel­lite agency.

File photo of a Falcon 9 launch from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: SpaceX

“Clearing mid-band spec­trum expe­di­tious­ly while pro­tect­ing cable neigh­bor­hoods across America is a huge under­tak­ing and one that requires part­ners that can deliv­er mis­sion suc­cess and sched­ule assur­ance,” said Steve Collar, CEO at SES. “We are thrilled to be work­ing with ULA again and part­ner­ing to meet the FCC’s ambi­tious time­line for the accel­er­at­ed clear­ing of C‑band spec­trum.”

“We are pleased SES select­ed ULA and our proven Atlas 5 for this impor­tant com­mer­cial launch ser­vice,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s pres­i­dent and CEO. “Atlas 5 is known for its unmatched level of sched­ule cer­tain­ty and reli­a­bil­i­ty and this launch is crit­i­cal to the timely clear­ing of C‑band spec­trum, empow­er­ing America’s accel­er­at­ed imple­men­ta­tion of 5G.

“ULA’s legacy of per­for­mance, pre­ci­sion and mis­sion design flex­i­bil­i­ty allow us to deliv­er a tai­lored launch ser­vice that min­i­mizes orbit rais­ing time and per­fect­ly meet our customer’s require­ments,” Bruno said in a state­ment. “We are thrilled to pro­vide this opti­mized launch solu­tion to SES for this cru­cial launch.”

Two SES satel­lites have launched on pre­vi­ous Atlas 5 rocket mis­sions in 2004 and 2006. ULA now has two com­mer­cial launch­es in its Atlas 5 back­log, along with a ViaSat 3 broad­band pay­load due to fly on the most power Atlas 5 con­fig­u­ra­tion with five solid rocket boost­ers.

The Northrop Grumman-built SES 18 and 19 satel­lites will use a com­bi­na­tion of elec­tric and liquid propul­sion for post-launch orbit-rais­ing maneu­vers.

“We have a deep and trust­ed rela­tion­ship with SpaceX having been the first to launch a com­mer­cial satel­lite with them and sub­se­quent­ly the first com­mer­cial com­pa­ny to adopt the flight-proven boost­er and we could not be more con­fi­dent in their abil­i­ty to deliv­er on this time-crit­i­cal mis­sion,” Collar said in a state­ment.

Six SES satel­lites have launched on SpaceX Falcon 9 rock­ets to date.

“SES is one of SpaceX‘s most-valued part­ners, and we are proud of their con­tin­ued trust in our capa­bil­i­ties to reli­ably deliv­er their satel­lites to orbit,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s pres­i­dent and chief oper­at­ing offi­cer. “We are excit­ed to once again play a role in exe­cut­ing SES’s solu­tions to meet their cus­tomers’ needs.”

SES will soon order two addi­tion­al C‑band satel­lites from U.S. man­u­fac­tur­ers as ground spares. The con­tract option with SpaceX to place a third C‑band satel­lite into orbit would cover the launch of one of the ground spares, Ong said.

“The ground spares will only be launched if there is a sys­tem­at­ic prob­lem that delays the satel­lite con­struc­tion, or if there is a launch fail­ure or any other issue that puts the accel­er­at­ed clear­ing sched­ule at risk,” Ong said in response to ques­tions from Spaceflight Now. “In case of a launch fail­ure, SpaceX will launch one of the other C‑band satel­lites that SES will order soon.”

The four SES satel­lites are part of the Federal Communications Commission’s order final­ized ear­li­er this year to clear 300 mega­hertz of C‑band spec­trum for the roll-out of 5G mobile con­nec­tiv­i­ty net­works.

The FCC plans to auc­tion U.S. C‑band spec­trum — cur­rent­ly used for satel­lite-based video broad­cast ser­vices to mil­lions of cus­tomers — to 5G oper­a­tors in December. In com­pen­sa­tion for losing the spec­trum, Intelsat is set to receive $4.87 bil­lion and SES will get $3.97 bil­lion from 5G bid­ders if they can accel­er­ate the tran­si­tion of C‑band ser­vices to a small­er swath of spec­trum by December 2023, two years before the FCC’s man­dat­ed dead­line.

Artist’s concept of the SES 20 and SES 21 communications satellites to be manufactured by Boeing. Credit: Boeing

Intelsat and SES — along with oper­a­tors with a small­er share of the U.S. C‑band market — will also be reim­bursed for their C‑band relo­ca­tion costs, includ­ing satel­lite man­u­fac­tur­ing and launch expens­es.

As part of the agree­ment, the satel­lite oper­a­tors were incen­tivized to buy new C‑band broad­cast­ing satel­lites from U.S. man­u­fac­tur­ers to oper­ate in the 4.0 to 4.2 giga­hertz swath of the C‑band spec­trum. The lower por­tion of the band pre­vi­ous­ly allo­cat­ed to satel­lite oper­a­tors — 3.7 to 4.0 mega­hertz — is being tran­si­tioned to 5G ser­vices.

Ong said the ground spares SES is set to order soon will be avail­able to launch on short notice to ensure SES can meet the FCC’s dead­line to clear the upper part of the C‑band spec­trum for 5G ser­vices.

When it ordered the four new satel­lites from Boeing and Northrop Grumman in June, SES said each satel­lite will have 10 pri­ma­ry transpon­ders, plus back-up equip­ment, to deliv­er tele­vi­sion ser­vices to more than 120 mil­lion homes and enable other crit­i­cal data ser­vices. At that time, SES said the satel­lites are sched­uled for launch in the third quar­ter of 2022.

SES said in May that its board of direc­tors approved an invest­ment enve­lope of $1.6 bil­lion to pro­cure and launch the new C‑band satel­lites, and pay for other equip­ment and ser­vices, such as signal fil­ters on ground anten­nas, to accom­mo­date the C‑band tran­si­tion to 5G ser­vices.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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