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Arianespace assessing impact of crewed Soyuz failure on satellite-launching variant

The impact of an Oct. 11 crewed Soyuz rocket anomaly on Europeanized Soyuz rockets operated by Arianespace is still unclear. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON —  Arianespace said Oct. 11 it’s too soon to say whether the Soyuz-ST rockets it uses to launch satellites from South America will be grounded following the failure of a Russian Soyuz-FG rocket carrying crew to the International Space Station.

Preparations for Arianespace’s planned November launch of a Soyuz-ST rocket carrying a European weather satellite remained underway Oct. 11 at Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana despite a still-unexplained Soyuz booster failure earlier the same day that forced the Soyuz-MS10 spacecraft to abort its mission about two minutes after liftoff and make an emergency landing.

“Along with our Russian partners, as soon as the relevant data is available, we will study the possible impact of this anomaly on Arianespace’s planned launches with Soyuz,” Arianespace said in an Oct. 11 statement. “At this point, it is still too early to draw any conclusions. In the meantime, the launch campaign for next Soyuz in November is continuing.”

The payload for the November mission is Metop-C, a weather satellite built by Airbus Defence and Space for Europe’s Eumetsat meteorological organization. The launch is scheduled for Nov. 7, according to a recent Eumetsat update.

Arianespace also noted in its statement that it uses a variant of the Soyuz rocket Russia uses to launch Soyuz TMA-M capsules to the space station.

“The versions of this launcher used for Arianespace flights from the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana are ST versions, which are different from the FG version used for this mission to the ISS,” Arianespace said in the statement.

While both rockets are Russian, the Soyuz variant that Arianespace uses is slightly newer and incorporates changes such as a larger fairing, a new digital telemetry system and some engine modifications necessary for launching in high humidity.  

The crewed Soyuz vehicle with NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Roscosmos cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin returned to Earth safely after the Soyuz rocket booster malfunctioned. Roscosmos has set up a “state commission” to investigate the anomaly.

Arianespace has been launching Soyuz rockets for companies and government agencies since 2011, operating the Russian vehicles from Guiana Space Centre, the same spaceport used to launch European Ariane 5 and Vega rockets. Russian crewed missions take place from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Eumetsat’s Metop-C weather satellite is designed to measure temperature, humidity and wind, as well as to detect ozone and other atmospheric gases. Eumetsat has two second-generation MetOp satellites, Metop-SG A1 and Metop-SG B1, also slated to launch on Soyuz rockets between 2021 and 2023.

Four additional Arianespace customers — OneWeb, based in Britain’s Channel Islands, telecom satellite operator SES of Luxembourg, and the Italian and European space agencies — all have Soyuz missions scheduled for this year or next year.

The list of upcoming Arianespace Soyuz missions includes:

  • OneWeb’s debut launch of 10 small telecom satellites, planned for sometime between December and February. The launch is the first of 21 Soyuz missions OneWeb purchased from Arianespace to carry between 690 and 720 satellites to low Earth orbit. OneWeb envisions a fast-paced launch campaign for the subsequent 20 missions, each carrying 34 to 36 spacecraft.

  • SES’s final first-generation launch of four O3b satellites, planned for 2019. All 16 O3b satellites in medium Earth orbit today launched on Soyuz rockets four at a time. SES has not announced a launch provider for the second-generation fleet, called O3b mPower, which Boeing is building, but said last year that the satellites were also designed to launch four at a time like the first generation from Thales Alenia Space.

  • The 2019 dual launch of the European Space Agency’s CHEOPS (Characterizing ExOPlanet Satellite) and the Italian Space Agency’s Cosmo-Skymed radar satellite. The civil- and military-purposed Cosmo-Skymed satellite has a similar polar, sun-synchronous orbit to CHEOPS, enabling the shared launch. Airbus is CHEOPS’ manufacturer, while Thales Alenia Space is in charge of building Cosmo-Skymed.

Soyuz is Arianespace’s medium-lift launcher, filling the gap between the light-lift Vega rocket and the heavyweight Ariane 5. Last year Arianespace used Soyuz for two missions to geostationary transfer orbit — the drop of point for most multi-ton telecom satellites — a feat championed as evidence of the rocket’s versatility. Before then, Arianespace-operated Soyuz launches were all to lower orbits, many to medium Earth orbit for the European Commission’s Galileo navigation satellites and for SES’s O3b telecom fleet.

Eumetsat and the Italian Space Agency did not respond to requests for comment. OneWeb declined to comment. SES said it is not expecting an impact on its launch schedule due to the difference on Soyuz variants.

ESA issued the following statement:

“Most important – the crew (Nick Hague, NASA, Aleksey Ovchinin, Roscosmos) is safe and in good condition. The aborted launch will have influence on the planning for the near future of ISS and the Horizons mission of ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst. We can’t provide further comments on this right now.

“A commission is put in place by Russian space agency Roscosmos. All other International Space Station partners, including ESA, are in full support of the ongoing efforts by the Roscosmos commission.

The ISS partnership is strong and has already dealt well with similar incidents related to cargo vehicles in the past.”

ESA Director General Jan Woerner sent an email Oct. 11 to the head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, offering ESA’s assistance in the Soyuz anomaly investigation.

Glavkosmos, the Russian company that since 2017 has also marketed Soyuz missions, but mainly for cubesat and other small satellite missions, also did not respond to a request for comment.

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SES’s future GEO satellites will be more like O3b, CEO says

Steve Collar, SES president and chief executive, is shown talking to Rodolphe Belmer, Eutelsat chief executive, during a satellite operators panel at the World Satellite Business Week conference in Paris in September 2018. Credit: SpaceNews/Brian Berger

WASHINGTON — Fresh off the success of a recent contract win to connect IBM Cloud customers with O3b satellites, SES’s chief executive said many of the operator’s future geostationary satellites will have attributes of O3b to appeal to more cloud networks.

Luxembourg-based SES announced IBM as a customer last week, saying the two companies will collaborate on IBM Cloud computer services that rely on satellite connectivity.

Speaking Oct. 9 at the Satellite Innovation 2018 conference in Mountain View, California, SES CEO Steve Collar said cloud computer networks are the next big customer set SES wants to reach, and that the company will hone future satellites and ground infrastructure to serve such clientele.

Collar said the second-generation O3b satellites that Boeing is building, known as O3b mPower, will form the tip of the spear as SES reshapes its business to cater to more cloud computer companies.

“What we’ve done with O3b mPower is what we are going to do with every single GEO satellite that we launch in the future that is data or network related,” Collar said.

In an email, Collar elaborated on the O3b-ification of SES GEO satellites, saying such satellites will have “flexible, reconfigurable payloads that integrate fully into the network.”

SES has 16 first-generation O3b satellites from Thales Alenia Space operating in 8,000-kilometer medium Earth orbits, plus another four scheduled to launch next year on an Arianespace Soyuz. O3b satellites are all focused on data services, whereas SES’s 50-plus geostationary satellites in 36,000-kilometer orbits provide a mix of television broadcast and data connectivity.

Collar became CEO of SES in April, having served as CEO of O3b before the company was acquired by SES in 2016.

At the conference, Collar stressed the need to integrate O3b mPower with SES’s GEO fleet. A substantial part of this evolution will involve the use of an “intelligent ground network” that can manage services from each fleet regardless of orbit, he said. The ground network will need virtualized satellite gateways on the ground, shifting the emphasis from hardware to software, to become “an integral part of the cloud environment.”

“It’s making our network entirely flexible in terms of how traffic is routed,” he said. “Sometimes we will be sending traffic over the GEO system, over the MEO system or indeed over terrestrial links in order to deliver the right kind of experience to our customers.”

Data customers are gradually becoming a larger part of SES’s overall customer makeup, and are expected to grow faster than its core broadcast business. In July, SES forecast its broadcast revenue will shift from 68 percent of total revenue today to less than 60 percent by 2020. Data connectivity, in contrast, will expand from 32 percent of revenue today to more than 40 percent by 2020.

Collar described the reshaping of the company for cloud customers as a “third round” of major evolution (the first being 30 years ago with the provisioning of satellite television in Europe, and the second around 2009 when SES first invested in O3b).

“Ten years ago we were at the beginning of the journey of: how do we become a network provider rather than being defined as being a satellite operator? Now we are talking about becoming a mainstream participant in a global cloud-scale network community,” he said.

Collar said SES is retooling the entire company by “hiring a whole load of software engineers” and network engineers — talent the satellite industry has to fight with internet giants such as Google and Facebook for — to position the satellite operator as part of a larger cloud ecosystem. That process emphasizes hiring recent graduates, including those straight out of colleges and universities, he said.

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SES wants fleet of identical, interchangeable satellites

Steve Collar, SES president and chief executive, is shown talking to Rodolphe Belmer, Eutelsat chief executive, during a satellite operators panel at the World Satellite Business Week conference in Paris in September 2018. Credit: SpaceNews/Brian Berger

PARIS — Fleet operator SES plans to revolutionize satellite purchasing and operations.

Instead of buying individual satellites tailored for a specific job at a precise orbital location as it has for decades, the Luxembourg-based company is seeking homogenous satellites with digitally processed payloads it can reconfigure to perform any job in geostationary or medium Earth orbit.

“We will only buy one type of satellite going forward,” Steve Collar, SES president and chief executive, told reporters Sept. 10 at the World Satellite Business Week conference here. “Exactly the same spacecraft can be operated at 19.2 degrees, 23.5 degrees, 108 degrees East, it doesn’t matter. We can put them wherever we want.”

If the SES board of directors approves the plan, SES will solicit proposals by the end of the month and begin purchasing in early 2019 the new 2.5 to 2.9-ton spacecraft offering approximately 12.5 kilowatts of power, said Martin Halliwell, SES chief technology officer, who leads the initiative.

Prior to announcing its plan, SES worked with 11 potential satellite vendors and selected three for continued cooperation. Company executives declined to name the vendors.

SES is embarking on this campaign because it expects satellites to be an integral part of evolving global communications networks. To perform that role, however, the industry will need to expand satellite production dramatically, Collar said.

“If we get the savings we think we will, we will be able to significantly scale our network without spending more or more modestly scale our network and spend less,” Collar said. “We haven’t yet decided where that comes out.”

To further improve economies of scale, SES is encouraging manufacturers to share the new spacecraft design with other customers. “Let’s make the party as big as possible,” Halliwell said. Collar added, “We think it will improve the economics of the whole industry.”

SES plans to stack three of its future satellites, which don’t yet have a brand name, on rockets. The rockets could then drop them off in medium Earth or geostationary transfer orbit, as needed, Halliwell said.

SES operates 56 satellites in geostationary orbit and 16 O3B satellites in medium Earth orbit. The firm plans to launch four more O3B satellites in 2019. SES also is investing more than 1 billion euros ($1.16 billion) in O3B mPower, a seven-satellite constellation built by Boeing for internet and data connectivity that is slated to begin launching in 2021.

SES’s plans to fly the new reprogrammable satellites comes after mPower, Collar said.

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MEO startup Methera plans “high density” HTS constellation

Chris McIntosh Methera

SINGAPORE and WASHINGTON — In medium Earth orbit, the only system providing satellite broadband today is SES Networks’ constellation of 16 O3b satellites. A British startup with its own 16-satellite constellation idea wants to change that.

Methera Global Communications estimates it needs $500 million to build and launch a constellation of satellites each equipped with 40 gigabits of capacity to beam down Ka-band connectivity to highly concentrated areas.

If successful, Methera will launch its first spacecraft in 2022, with service starting that same year.

Chris McIntosh Methera
Chris McIntosh, CEO of Methera, a startup planning a constellation of at least 16 satellites in medium Earth orbit for broadband connectivity. Credit: Methera.

Chris McIntosh, Methera’s CEO, left his position as CEO of Viasat UK last June to lead Methera, joining co-founders David Gilmore from GapSat and David Robson, who, according to LinkedIn, was the head of advanced payloads for 25 years at EADS Astrium (now Airbus Defence and Space). Gilmore and Robson started Methera in 2015. The startup currently consists of 10 people and is based in Harwell with several other British startups.

McIntosh describes “capacity density” as the key differentiator between his company’s proposed constellation and other emerging satellite systems.

“Instead of trying to put a thin veneer of coverage around the globe, what we’re doing is looking at a small number of targets where we will put lots of capacity,” he said.

Methera’s 700-kilogram satellites — the same mass as the first-generation O3b satellites — will hone capacity on extremely specific locations, targeting a small number of high-value customers, McIntosh said. Government and service provider customers will be able to “take a village or a town from no coverage to being able to provide for everyone as opposed to being able to provide for a few,” he said.

If Methera can hit the cost and performance targets it anticipates, its system should be “relatively competitive with the current most advanced geostationary satellites” like those of Viasat and Hughes, according to Armand Musey, president of the consulting firm Summit Ridge Group.

But positioning the satellites in medium Earth orbit means customers of Methera’s system will need advanced antennas that can track the satellites as they move relative to the Earth’s surface.

“I’m not sure that there is a significant space segment cost that would offset the higher customer premise equipment,” Musey said.

O3b faced the same challenge and, finding flat panel, electronically steerable antennas commercially unavailable, started service in 2014 with terminals using two dishes ensuring a constant link for uninterrupted service.

McIntosh said Methera has been working for the past year on a low-cost terminal design thanks to 700,000 pounds ($912,000) of funding from Innovate UK, the British innovation agency, and 70,000 pounds from the U.K.’s National Space Technology Program.

Methera is focusing initially on parabolic antennas as well, but is studying “whether there is anything clever you can do to minimize the time that it takes to do a handover,” such as using only one dish instead of two, he said.

“What we believe is that things have moved on since when O3b went through that same challenge,” McIntosh said.

Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, a British company specialized in building small satellites, is one of Methera’s partners, along with British telecom Arqiva, satellite equipment provider Global Invacom and consulting firm In Space Missions Ltd., according to Methera’s website. Ben Stocker, SSTL’s director of telecommunications, told SpaceNews by email that the company completed a feasibility study for the Methera constellation.

“SSTL participated, as part of a wider consortium, in a [U.K. Space Agency] funded study to define a feasible mission baseline and concept of operations for the Methera Space Segment,” Stocker said. “The study successfully concluded in July 2018, with a key part of the study being to identify the main elements of the system that drive cost and schedule. SSTL continue to work closely with Methera to further optimise the Space Segment solution.”

McIntosh said confirmatory work is ongoing following the study.

Methera has a pending application with the U.K.’s telecom regulator Ofcom to license its low-latency satellite system, McIntosh said. The company has not applied for market access in the U.S. with the Federal Communications Commission because the U.S. is not an area of initial focus, he said.

McIntosh highlighted emerging markets as Methera’s target areas. Methera doesn’t have any firm customer commitments yet, but does have signals of healthy interest through letters of intent, he said.

“The biggest problem is deciding where to roll out so we can focus our energy on the ones we can take all the way to an order,” he said.

By placing 16 satellites in 18,000-kilometer polar orbits — about 2,000 kilometers below the U.S. Air Force’s GPS satellites — Methera will be able to reach anywhere on Earth’s surface, he said.

Methera is currently operating using funds from a seed round, and is seeking to raise a series A this year. McIntosh declined to state the company’s target for the Series A.

McIntosh said Methera sees an opportunity to work with other satellite constellations by providing additional capacity in areas of interest, especially for constellations where increasing throughput in a singular location would require scaling up the entire system through multiple additional satellites.

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SES lowers video forecast, gives glowing review of O3b mPower progress

Steve Collar SES

WASHINGTON — Satellite fleet operator SES of Luxembourg lowered its revenue forecast for its television broadcast division July 27 while forecasting stable growth of data services.

Sharing the results of an internal review following his April appointment as CEO, Steve Collar described SES as taking a “more prudent view for video,” as revenues declined despite an increase in number of channels broadcast.

The majority of SES’s revenues — 68 percent — come from television broadcasts, including video services beyond just content distribution. By 2020, though, SES expects that number to be less than 60 percent as data services, currently 32 percent of revenues, increases to more than 40 percent.

Collar downplayed the revised video forecast, saying the overall picture for SES “is a healthy one.” The company reported 981.4 million euros ($1.15 billion) of total revenue for the first six months of the year, down 6.4 percent from the same period last year, and an operating profit of 227.7 million euros, down 9.3 percent compared to the same time period. Ignoring currency fluctuations, SES said revenues decreased only half a percent year over year, and profit by 5.6 percent.

Future business

SES’s biggest investment at present is O3b mPower, a seven-satellite system Boeing is building to provide 10 terabits of capacity for internet and data connectivity services. Collar said the completion of O3b mPower’s preliminary design review, disclosed by Boeing July 25, was “one of the cleanest that we’ve had,” and suggests SES is “going to be able to deliver more performance over that system than we initially expected.”

SES has 16 Ka-band O3b satellites in medium Earth orbit today, plus another four slated to launch next year on a Europeanized Soyuz from Arianespace. O3b mPower is expected to start launching in 2021, though SES has not yet announced a launch provider.

Collar said SES is maintaining its forecast for its data division, SES Networks, at 660 to 690 million euros this year. Following the internal review, SES said its SES Networks division should generate 850 to 900 million euros in 2020, compared to the previous forecast of more than 875 million euros.

Ferdinand Kayser, CEO of SES Video, said close to 95 percent of the anticipated 2018 revenue for the division was already secured by the middle of the year, appreciably higher than where the company was even at the end of 2017. SES attributed a combination of customer reductions in North America and the failure of some new broadcast platforms in emerging markets to a 2.3 percent decline in year-over-year video revenue, factoring in currency fluctuations. That decrease occurred even as SES’s total number of channels broadcast reached 7,941, a 3 percent annual increase, with capacity-intensive HD channels growing 7 percent to 2,765 channels and ultra-HD growing by more than 90 percent to 38 channels.

“The acceleration of HD and ultra-HD across Europe, North America and the international continues to be a key driver, demonstrating the long-term importance of satellite as the most efficient distribution network for providing tens of millions of viewers simultaneously with streaming content and which is the only one offering a quality guarantee,” he said.

Kayser said SES Video is pursuing strong business leads for SES-10, which launched last year to provide new coverage to Latin America, and SES-9, a replacement launched in 2016 for NSS-7 that provides some new capacity over Asia.

Optimistic on C-band

SES, together with Intelsat, Intel and most recently Eutelsat, submitted a plan to U.S. regulators that offers up 100 megahertz of C-band spectrum for 5G cellular networks that featured prominently in a government plan to open the band to more users.

Collar praised the Federal Communication Commission’s plan, released July 12, as “really encouraging,” despite indications that it may take more than 100 megahertz.

“We’ve been pretty clear that we have a plan that closes for 100 megahertz,” he said. “We also acknowledge the desire for more spectrum to be freed up and we are working on it.”

FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said July 12 that he wants 5G to have 200 to 300 of the 500 megahertz of C-band currently allocated for satellite communications in the U.S., substantially more than satellite operators have volunteered to yield so long as mobile operators cover the expense. Satellite operators use C-band in the U.S. mainly for television broadcasting, along with some other services such as emergency communications when terrestrial systems are damaged or destroyed.

“Everything up till now has been win-lose: we get something, you lose something. This is the first time where we create an environment where we can invest in our customers, in our video neighborhoods and at the same time free up spectrum,” Collar said.

The FCC wants to free up more spectrum for 5G quickly to support new devices as telecommunications companies continue to test the technology this year. Satellite operators say such a timeline plays to their advantage over other plans, such as a spectrum auction.

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SES, with FCC’s blessing, says O3b constellation can reach global coverage

Artist’s rendition of SES Network’s O3b mPower constellation. Credit: SES.

WASHINGTON — SES says its constellation of medium Earth orbit O3b satellites now has the ability to expand from an equatorial system to a global system thanks to new approvals from U.S. telecom regulators.

On June 8, SES said the U.S. Federal Communications Commission approved the Luxembourg company’s request to sell satellite connectivity services in the U.S. with 26 additional O3b satellites. Those satellites would operate in both inclined and equatorial orbits, expanding O3b’s coverage from its present 50 degrees out from the equator all the way to the poles.

With 16 satellites already in space, SES’s new authorization will permit it to operate a total of 42 satellites in medium Earth orbit. The new satellites will include four more first-generation satellites built by Thales Alenia Space for launch next year on an Arianespace Soyuz, 10 satellites in inclined orbits, and 12 satellites in equatorial orbits.

SES said the FCC approval enables the company to “triple its next-generation O3b mPOWER fleet” for which Boeing is building the first seven satellites in anticipation of a 2021 launch. Each O3b mPower satellite has more than 10 times the capacity of the first-generation satellites, according to SES. The first seven are estimated to provide some 10 terabits of total throughput.

SES, when announcing O3b mPower last September, said the first seven satellites would cover 80 percent of the Earth’s surface, but would not be limited to that coverage footprint.

“We designed O3b mPower as a system, not as a bunch of satellites, and not as limited to the first seven satellites that we launch,” Steve Collar, then CEO of SES Networks and now CEO of all of SES, said at a press conference. “O3b mPower will be and is conceived as being a fully global system.”

SES operates the O3b satellites in 8,000-kilometer orbits, roughly a fourth of the distance to Earth compared to geostationary satellites, enabling significantly lower signal lag.

To date all of SES’s O3b satellites operate in Ka-band, using high-throughput spot beams for broadband connectivity and network services. The FCC’s approval included rights to six satellites with higher frequency V-band — a region of spectrum satellite operators have been testing for commercial use. SES is the second company to obtain FCC approval for V-band satellite communications following Hughes Network Systems in March. Other companies including Boeing, Viasat, SpaceX, OneWeb, Theia Holdings and Telesat have also requested authorization for V-band satellite systems.

Industry reservations

SES’s application for new O3b satellites faced opposition from Iridium, Telesat and Viasat.

Iridium petitioned the FCC to deny SES’s application because it included access to some frequencies designated for mobile satellite services operators like Iridium.

Mobile satellite services operators and fixed satellite services operators are losing their distinction as operators of both kinds seek to provide data services to the same platforms such as aircraft, cruise ships and oil rigs.

The FCC sided with SES’s view that O3b’s mobile satellite services operations “have the same characteristics as its [fixed satellite services] operations.”

Canada-based Telesat asked the FCC to give priority to operators who have earlier spectrum filings with the International Telecommunication Union. Such prioritization would give Telesat, which is planning a low Earth orbit constellation of 117 satellites, first rights to certain Ka-band frequencies over SES. The FCC rejected Telesat’s proposal, but stipulated that SES comply with the commission’s spectrum-sharing rules.

Viasat voiced concern about O3b signal power levels and the risk they could interfere with geosynchronous satellites. The FCC said a newly adopted rule requires satellites outside of the geostationary arc not cause unacceptable interference to geostationary satellites providing fixed data or broadcast television services, and conditioned SES’s authorization on obeying this rule. SES’s O3b satellites must also adhere to any future power limitations the FCC — and to an unspecified extent, the ITU — sets on V-band, the agency said.

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SES, with FCC’s blessing, says O3b constellation can reach global coverage

Artist’s rendition of SES Network’s O3b mPower constellation. Credit: SES.

WASHINGTON — SES says its constellation of medium Earth orbit O3b satellites now has the ability to expand from an equatorial system to a global system thanks to new approvals from U.S. telecom regulators.

On June 8, SES said the U.S. Federal Communications Commission approved the Luxembourg company’s request to sell satellite connectivity services in the U.S. with 26 additional O3b satellites. Those satellites would operate in both inclined and equatorial orbits, expanding O3b’s coverage from its present 50 degrees out from the equator all the way to the poles.

With 16 satellites already in space, SES’s new authorization will permit it to operate a total of 42 satellites in medium Earth orbit. The new satellites will include four more first-generation satellites built by Thales Alenia Space for launch next year on an Arianespace Soyuz, 10 satellites in inclined orbits, and 12 satellites in equatorial orbits.

SES said the FCC approval enables the company to “triple its next-generation O3b mPOWER fleet” for which Boeing is building the first seven satellites in anticipation of a 2021 launch. Each O3b mPower satellite has more than 10 times the capacity of the first-generation satellites, according to SES. The first seven are estimated to provide some 10 terabits of total throughput.

SES, when announcing O3b mPower last September, said the first seven satellites would cover 80 percent of the Earth’s surface, but would not be limited to that coverage footprint.

“We designed O3b mPower as a system, not as a bunch of satellites, and not as limited to the first seven satellites that we launch,” Steve Collar, then CEO of SES Networks and now CEO of all of SES, said at a press conference. “O3b mPower will be and is conceived as being a fully global system.”

SES operates the O3b satellites in 8,000-kilometer orbits, roughly a fourth of the distance to Earth compared to geostationary satellites, enabling significantly lower signal lag.

To date all of SES’s O3b satellites operate in Ka-band, using high-throughput spot beams for broadband connectivity and network services. The FCC’s approval included rights to six satellites with higher frequency V-band — a region of spectrum satellite operators have been testing for commercial use. SES is the second company to obtain FCC approval for V-band satellite communications following Hughes Network Systems in March. Other companies including Boeing, Viasat, SpaceX, OneWeb, Theia Holdings and Telesat have also requested authorization for V-band satellite systems.

Industry reservations

SES’s application for new O3b satellites faced opposition from Iridium, Telesat and Viasat.

Iridium petitioned the FCC to deny SES’s application because it included access to some frequencies designated for mobile satellite services operators like Iridium.

Mobile satellite services operators and fixed satellite services operators are losing their distinction as operators of both kinds seek to provide data services to the same platforms such as aircraft, cruise ships and oil rigs.

The FCC sided with SES’s view that O3b’s mobile satellite services operations “have the same characteristics as its [fixed satellite services] operations.”

Canada-based Telesat asked the FCC to give priority to operators who have earlier spectrum filings with the International Telecommunication Union. Such prioritization would give Telesat, which is planning a low Earth orbit constellation of 117 satellites, first rights to certain Ka-band frequencies over SES. The FCC rejected Telesat’s proposal, but stipulated that SES comply with the commission’s spectrum-sharing rules.

Viasat voiced concern about O3b signal power levels and the risk they could interfere with geosynchronous satellites. The FCC said a newly adopted rule requires satellites outside of the geostationary arc not cause unacceptable interference to geostationary satellites providing fixed data or broadcast television services, and conditioned SES’s authorization on obeying this rule. SES’s O3b satellites must also adhere to any future power limitations the FCC — and to an unspecified extent, the ITU — sets on V-band, the agency said.

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O3b MEO constellation grows to 16 with latest Soyuz launch

An Arianespace Soyuz launches from the Guiana Space Center March 9 with four O3b satellites. Credit: Arianespace video still.

WASHINGTON — A Soyuz rocket from Arianespace successfully delivered four telecommunications satellites into medium Earth orbit for fleet operator SES.

The rocket took off from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana at 12:11 p.m. Eastern March 9 after a 33-minute delay caused by high altitude winds. The four 700-kilogram satellites separated from the rocket’s upper stage two hours after liftoff in pairs 20 minutes apart.

The launch is Arianespace’s second launch of the year and first since an inertial navigation system with incorrect launch data led an Ariane 5 rocket slightly off course in January. Arianespace said at the time of the Ariane 5 investigation that future missions were proceeding as scheduled.

However, on March 5 Arianespace chose to delay the Soyuz launch by three days for “additional checks at the Guiana Space Center (CSG) as part of the resumption of launches,” according to a company statement. Spokesperson Aaron Lewis declined to say if they delay was related to the European Space Agency’s recommendation that Arianespace vet launch documents and mission parameters more diligently before launching.

Luxembourg-based SES now has 16 high-throughput Ka-band satellites circling the Equator at an altitude of 8,000 kilometers, about one fourth the distance from the Earth as geostationary orbit, where most telecommunications satellites operate. SES took full ownership of O3b in 2016, pairing O3b’s MEO satellites with its GEO fleet.

SES was an early investor in O3b back in 2009, four years before the company had any spacecraft in orbit and when the idea of putting broadband-optimized satellites in MEO instead of the traditional geostationary orbit faced substantial industry skepticism. O3b has championed MEO’s lower latency, or lag time, as an advantage over GEO.

In a post-launch speech at the CSG’s Jupiter control room, SES Chief Technology Officer Martin Halliwell said the four new satellites should enter service May 17, increasing the capacity of the O3b fleet by 38 percent. The new satellites also increase O3b’s reach by five degrees further from the Equator, up to 50 degrees north and south latitude.

Halliwell, an SES employee for 31 years and CTO for the past seven, said he plans to retire next year, and that today’s launch will likely be his last visit to the CSG.

The four satellites launched today are part of an eight-satellite order O3b Networks made in 2015 to incumbent supplier Thales Alenia Space, prior to SES ownership. The other four satellites launch early next year, Halliwell said, on another Arianespace Soyuz. Those satellites will compete the first-generation O3b constellation.

SES placed an order in 2017 with Boeing for seven second-generation satellites for a constellation called O3b mPower, designed to deliver 10 terabits of throughput. O3b mPower is scheduled to start launching in 2021. SES has not yet selected a launch provider for the O3b mPower satellites. 

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O3b’s Steve Collar to lead SES, Karim Michel Sabbagh stepping down

Steve Collar will succeed Karim Michel Sabbagh as CEO of SES this April. Credit: SES

WASHINGTON — Satellite fleet operator SES on Feb. 12 announced that CEO Karim Michel Sabbagh will be leaving the company April 5, exactly four years after assuming the position.

Steve Collar, who ran the medium-Earth orbit satellite operator O3b Networks from 2012 to 2017 and now leads all of SES’s connectivity business, will replace Sabbagh.

Additionally, SES’s Chief Financial Officer Padraig McCarthy, is retiring, with another former O3b executive, CFO Andrew Brown, taking his place.

In a statement, SES said Sabbagh chose to leave the company “ In order to spend time with his family and to pursue new interests.”

McCarthy, who has been at SES since 1995, agreed to “remain at the disposal of the company” post-retirement.

SES has yet to select a replacement for Steve Collar to lead the company’s SES Networks division, which now also includes the O3b broadband satellites as part of its portfolio.

Romain Bausch, the 19-year CEO of SES until 2014 and current chairman of the company, praised Collar and Browne’s success with O3b, which has 12 satellites in orbit, four more launching next month, another four launching in 2019. After SES took full ownership of O3b in 2016, the operator placed a seven-satellite order with Boeing for O3b mPower, a constellation designed to beam 10 terabits of high-speed internet connectivity.

Karim Michel Sabbagh SES CEOKarim Michel Sabbagh, CEO of SES. Credit: SES

“We are extremely excited to welcome Steve and Andrew as our next CEO and CFO,” Bausch said. “They each have extensive experience with SES and the broader satellite industry, especially also as the architects of O3b, the fastest growing and most successful satellite start-up. We have confidence that, with our leadership team, our industry position, our solid balance sheet and our differentiated assets and capabilities, we are well positioned to deliver on our objectives.”

Sabbagh joined SES from global consulting firm Booz & Co. in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.  Under his leadership, SES took full ownership of O3b Networks, transforming SES into a geostationary- and medium-Earth orbit operator. He also led SES in the 2016 purchase of Israeli media and broadcast company RR Media for $242 million. SES then merged RR Media with its SES Platforms Services subsidiary to become MX1, meant to expand both traditional television broadcast as well as nonlinear, IP-based video distribution. Following those two acquisitions, SES reshaped its operating model into two divisions: SES Networks focusing on connectivity, and SES Video focusing on television broadcast.

“Karim steered the strategic positioning of SES in a fast-changing environment, built world-class capabilities with the leadership team and restructured our business and organisation to allow for full implementation of our strategy,” Bausch continued. “Padraig has made an enormous contribution to the success of SES since he joined in 1995, enabling SES to develop its strong financial profile and balance sheet and grow into its worldwide leading position. I wish Karim all the best for his future endeavors and Padraig for his well-deserved retirement.”

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Google using O3b satellites to connect Project Loon over Puerto Rico

One of Google’s Project Loon balloons floating from Nevada to Puerto Rico. Credit: Google.

WASHINGTON — Google’s experimental high-altitude balloon project is using connectivity from O3b satellites to provide emergency communications in hurricane-ravished Puerto Rico.

O3b owner SES said Oct. 23 that it is providing satellite capacity and a “rapidly deployable” O3b FastConnect terminal in order to connect Google Loons over Puerto Rico to the internet, which then beam 4G/LTE mobile connectivity to people on the ground.

The majority of Puerto Rico’s cellphone towers were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Maria, which struck the U.S. island as a Category 4 storm Sept. 20. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission tallied 95.2 percent of cell sites across the island were knocked out by the storm.

Google received permission from the FCC on Oct. 7 for the Loon trial run. At the time, 81.9 percent of cell towers on the island were still offline. The FCC’s most recent status report, released Oct. 22, said 66.6 percent of cell sites remain down.

In an interview with SpaceNews Oct. 23, SES Networks CEO Steve Collar said Puerto Rico is the satellite operator’s second time working with Google Loon, the first being in March following flooding in Peru.

“Our target as SES Networks is to have somewhere between half a gig[abit per second link] and a gig[-abit per second link] of connectivity available anywhere in the world within 24 to 48 hours,” he said.

Alastair Westgarth, head of Project Loon, wrote in an Oct. 20 blog post that Loon is working with AT&T to enable texting and internet access in Puerto Rico.

“We’ve never deployed Project Loon connectivity from scratch at such a rapid pace, and we’re grateful for the support of AT&T and the many other partners and organizations that have made this possible,” he wrote.

Collar said setting up the O3b link took slightly longer than SES Network’s stated goal because of the complexity of the disaster response and the uniqueness of pairing satellite with Google Loon.

Along with SES Networks, local telco Liberty Cablevision also assisted in establishing the ground infrastructure for Loon, Westgarth wrote.

Emergency response officials continue to use satellite communications directly in Puerto Rico and the Gulf of Mexico to support relief efforts. Fleet operator Intelsat said Oct. 23 it is donating satellite connectivity through three Kymeta-equipped vehicles with Liberty Global Puerto Rico for the next eight weeks. The FCC says satellite-connected trucks are providing communications services in 11 counties across the island, including Arecibo, home of the Arecibo radio telescope.

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