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March 14, 2012

Boeing Briefs on New Small Satellite Line

Satellite 2012, Washington DC - Boeing (News - Alert) executives bragged about its new small satellite line today -- and with good reason. The new 702SP series is going to give a lot of heart burn to smaller satellite manufacturers and larger launch providers. Two of the satellites are designed to be launched together on a medium-sized rocket, due in no small measure by the company cutting out liquid propellants for boosting/station keeping and going to an all-electric thruster system.

Boeing President Steve O'Neill said the new SP line “begins to change the equation” for operators, enabling them to launch capable satellites using more cost-effective medium launch vehicles.

Already, Boeing has announced two customers making a commitment to purchasing four satellites and there are “many other customers” in the queue, O'Neil stated.   Asia Broadcast Satellites (ABS (News - Alert)) and Satélites Mexicanos (Satmex) joined together to purchase the first two satellites for a bundled launch on a SpaceX (News - Alert) Falcon 9. ABS-3A and Satmex 7 are scheduled to be delivered together in late 2014 or early 2015. Both satellites will be configured with a mix of C- and Ku-band transponders. ABS has two more satellites in the queue, with the delivery date to be determined later. 

Boeing's 702 satellite family started big to support the communications industry and moved to medium sized with the MP (Medium Power) line, but the 702SP line represents a significant departure and a “substantial investment” in money and two years of development time.   According to company officials, the company has worked on the bus design to accommodate different payloads, using “agile” software to develop code, and worked to optimize production. The first two satellites will be built “in three years or less” with future satellites build built faster.

The 702SP weighs in below two metric tons (MT) and can be configured to deliver anywhere from 3 to 8 kilowatts of power. One of the satellites in the current build will support up to 47 active transponders. The SP's most radical departure from the 702 line is the removal of liquid propellants and all the plumbing, tanks, and fuel weight from the bus. Chopping liquid fuels take what would be a conventional-sized 4 MT satellite to under two metric tons. It also drastically reduces the complexity of launch systems, since you don't have to deal with bi-propellant/hypergolic fuels and the safety headaches they represent.

Instead, the 702SP is an “all electric” satellite, using 25 centimeter-diameter XIPS xenon ion electric thrusters and xenon gas for fuel. There are at least 18 satellites already on orbit using XIPS hardware, so the hardware is already proven.

Depending on the performance of the launch vehicle, a pair of satellites could be stacked together and launched into low earth orbit (LEO), supersynchronous orbit, or directly inserted into geostationary orbit.   For anything less than less than direct insertion, the xenon thrusters would be used to move the satellite into the proper orbital slot.   The only drawback -- if you can call it that -- is if a satellite is delivered to LEO, it could take four to six months for the high-performance low-thrust hardware to get the satellite into the proper position.

While the first announced customers are using the Falcon 9, Boeing officials noted that you could use just about any launch vehicle. The smaller size also offers new mix-and-match possibilities.   For example, an 702SP satellite could travel as a smaller secondary payload as a companion on an Ariane 5 launch with a larger 4 to 6 ton communications satellite.

A number of satellite builders targeting the two to four metric ton category are likely to be upset at Boeing's push into their territory. The jump to all electric propulsion represents a radical tack that is likely to drastically push system cost to orbit (hardware and launch) into a more affordable range for both commercial and government users.

Edited by Jennifer Russell

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