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Bill DiBenedetto headshot

Boeing: Something Electric in Space


All-electric satellite propulsion is becoming a big deal, and Boeing says it is “on track” to deliver the world's first all-electric xenon-ion propulsion satellites in late 2014 or early 2015 after meeting key production milestones on its initial 702SP (small platform) satellites.

Boeing announced that it has completed static qualification testing, verification and assembly of the primary structures for 702SP inaugural customers ABS and Eutelsat, meaning the satellites are well on their way to launch. The initial contract for the satellite was signed in 2012 between Boeing and Satmex. Eutelsat acquired Satmex in January 2014.

The four 702SP communications satellites will launch in pairs, and once in orbit, they will be entirely powered and propelled by electricity, rather than relying on rockets.

The first two 702SP satellites are scheduled for launch aboard a single SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket early next year. An all-electric satellite dispenses with heavy chemical propulsion and uses electric propulsion not only to maintain itself stably in orbit over 15 years, but also to raise the satellite from where it is dropped into orbit by its carrier rocket to its final destination in geostationary orbit.

Electric propulsion is more efficient and economical: Using a fully electric propulsion system means that the 702SP won’t weigh as much at launch, which in turn will lead to fuel savings and cost savings to put the satellites into space. In addition, the stackable design of the satellites allows them to take up less space, so it’s more affordable for companies to launch several satellites into orbit.

The xenon-ion propulsion system used aboard the 702SP is one of the lighter electric-propulsion technologies on the market, maximizing the weight savings but at a price of lower thrust. The satellites will require between six and eight months to travel from where they are dropped off by the Falcon 9 to their final geostationary position.

Despite their advantages, electric satellites have yet to fully catch on with commercial operators. The main reason is that these companies are often unwilling to wait six to eight months — as opposed to a week — after a satellite’s launch for it to begin generating revenue, said David W. Thompson, chief executive of manufacturer Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va. in a recent SpaceNews article.

The electric space race is now on: Airbus Defence and Space of Europe is offering an all-electric option this year. Thales Alenia Space will have an all-electric product starting in 2016. And Lockheed Martin Space Systems has its own all-electric design, which offers a quicker delivery to geostationary orbit but uses a heavier electric propulsion system. But for the moment, Boeing is leading the charge.

Image credit:  Boeing Media 702SP satellite

Bill DiBenedetto headshotBill DiBenedetto

Writer, editor, reader and generally good (okay mostly good, well sometimes good) guy trying to get by.

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