Intelsat and SES end negotiations to merge

In a very short press release, the Luxembourg-based satellite company SES today announced that it has broken off negotiations to merge with the satellite company Intelsat. The full text:

SES announces today that discussions regarding a possible combination with Intelsat have ceased. On 29 March 2023, SES had confirmed that the company engaged in discussions with Intelsat and that there could be no certainty that a transaction would materialise.

It appears the two companies could not settle differences on a number of points, and according to this article Intelsat decided to end negotiations yesterday.

There has been a trend among the established satellite companies to consolidate and merge, faced with the stiff competition from the new satellite constellations of Starlink and OneWeb. It is very possible that both of these companies will either revisit the idea of this merger, or begin negotiations with other established satellite companies.

Northrop Grumman’s robotic servicing satellites gets third contract, this time from Intelsat

With an announced contract with Intelsat today, Northrop Grumman has now obtained contracts for all three of its robotic servicing pods that will be launched on its Mission Servicing Vehicle in 2025.

Intelsat ordered the third and last pod available on the debut mission of the company’s new servicing spacecraft, called Mission Robotic Vehicle (MRV).

Australian communications satellite operator Optus was the first customer to sign up for the Mission Extension Pods, which are propulsion jet packs that add six years to the life of geostationary satellites. Intelsat in April said it purchased one of the pods, followed by today’s announcement that it ordered a second one.

The MRV is an upgrade from Northrop Grumman’s earlier robot, the Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV), which proved that it could autonomously rendezvous and dock with the nozzle of a defunct satellite and provide it with a new thruster and fuel so as to extend its life. With the MRV, multiple revised versions of the MEV are essentially launched at the same time.

SpaceX successfully launches Intelsat communications satellite

SpaceX tonight successfully used its Falcon 9 rocket to launch an Intelsat communications satellite into orbit, lifting off from Cape Canaveral.

The first stage completed its fourth flight, landing on a drone ship in the Atlantic. The two fairings completed their second and eighth flights.

The leaders in the 2023 launch race:

23 SpaceX
14 China
6 Russia
3 Rocket Lab

American private enterprise now leads China 26 to 14 in the national rankings, and the entire world combined 26 to 24. SpaceX now trails the rest of the world combined, including American companies, 23 to 27.

Intelsat develops airplane WiFi antenna that can access both Intelsat and OneWeb satellites

Intelsat has now completed flight tests of a new airplane WiFi antenna designed to access both Intelsat and OneWeb satellites during flight.

By using the Intelsat and OneWeb satellite networks together, Intelsat can offer the benefits of LEO’s low latency along with the redundancy GEO provides to address network hotspots that LEO networks on their own cannot address. Whether aircraft are flying polar regions or over the most populated cities in the world, the ESA antenna will offer seamless coverage from takeoff to touchdown.

At just 90 pounds and with no moving parts, the new antenna stands just 3.5 inches tall on the top of the aircraft. The terminal’s low profile has the lowest drag of any product Intelsat has ever offered.

With this antenna, Intelsat keeps itself in the game. Airlines can provide more complete coverage by using it and signing deals with both OneWeb and Intelsat to provide WiFi to passengers.

SpaceX launches two Intelsat communications satellites

Capitalism in space: SpaceX today successfully launched two Intelsat communications satellites using its Falcon 9 rocket.

The first stage completed its fourteenth flight, landing successfully on a drone ship in the Atlantic.

The leaders in the 2022 launch race:

46 SpaceX
42 China
12 Russia
8 Rocket Lab

American private enterprise now leads China 66 to 42 in the national rankings, and the entire globe combined 66 to 62.

Northrop Grumman’s MEV-2 successfully completes docking to commercial satellite

MEV-2 about 50 feet away from satellite

Capitalism in space: Northrop Grumman today announced that its second Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-2) has successfully docked with an Intelsat geosynchronous communications satellite.

Northrop Grumman is the only provider of flight-proven life extension services for satellites, and this is the second time the company has docked two commercial spacecraft in orbit. The company’s MEV-1 made history when it successfully docked to the Intelsat 901 (IS-901) satellite in February 2020. Unlike MEV-1, which docked above the GEO orbit before moving IS-901 back into service, MEV-2 docked with IS-10-02 directly in its operational GEO orbital location.

…Under the terms of Intelsat’s satellite life-extension servicing contract, MEV-2 will provide five years of service to IS-10-02 before undocking and moving on to provide services for a new mission.

The image, provided by Northrop Grumman, was taken by MEV-2’s infrared wide field of view camera when it was still about 50 feet away from the Intelsat satellite. You can see the Earth in the background. As I understand it, MEV-2 uses the satellite’s own engine nozzle as a docking port, which is the smallest circular feature in the center of the satellite. If you look close you can see the nozzle’s shadow on the right.

Video shows sudden satellite failure

Video of an Intelsat geosynchronous satellite that was having problems that suddenly worsened this week suggests the worsening was sudden and maybe catastrophic.

[N]ew data from ExoAnalytic Solutions, which has a network of 300 telescopes around the planet to track satellite movements in geostationary space, shows the situation has gotten markedly worse.

Since being alerted to the anomaly on Sunday, the company has been tracking Intelsat 29e with at least two telescopes at all time, the company’s chief executive, Doug Hendrix, told Ars. On Thursday, one of those telescopes captured the video embedded below, which shows a continued splintering of the satellite over a period of four hours. The ball of light at center is Intelsat 29e, and the streaks are background stars. First, there is a series of anomalous out-gassing events from the spacecraft, after which a persistent halo remains. As the halo dissipates, there are several pieces of debris that are continued to be tracked.

The video at the link is quite dramatic. Whether this failure was initially caused an internal failure or by an impact is presently unknown.

Orbital ATK gets its second contract for its satellite repair robot

Capitalism in space: Orbital ATK has signed a second contract to build another Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV), designed to robotically extend the life of old but usable satellites.

The vehicle was ordered by Intelsat S.A. to provide life extension services for an Intelsat satellite. Orbital ATK is now producing MEV-1, the industry’s first commercial in-space satellite servicing system, for Intelsat with launch scheduled for late 2018. Under this new agreement, Orbital ATK will manufacture, test and launch MEV-2 and begin mission extension services in mid-2020. The production of the second MEV is part of Orbital ATK’s longer-range plan to establish a fleet of in-orbit servicing vehicles that can address diverse space logistics needs including repair, assembly, refueling and in-space transportation.

“Work on MEV-1 is progressing rapidly toward a late 2018 launch with system-level testing beginning this spring,” said Tom Wilson, President of Orbital ATK’s Space Logistics, LLC subsidiary. “With the launch of MEV-2, Orbital ATK will continue to pioneer in-space satellite servicing for commercial operators. Intelsat’s commitment to a second MEV demonstrates not only the market demand for our servicing vehicles, but also the customer’s confidence in our product.”

Through its Space Logistics subsidiary, Orbital ATK will introduce in-orbit commercial satellite servicing with MEV-1 late this year. The MEV is based on the company’s GEOStarTM spacecraft platform, and controlled by the company’s satellite operations team. The MEV uses a reliable, low-risk docking system that attaches to existing features on a customer’s satellite, and provides life-extending services by taking over the orbit maintenance and attitude control functions of the client’s spacecraft. Each MEV vehicle has a 15 year design life with the ability to perform numerous dockings and repositionings during its life span.

What Orbital ATK here is doing is creating a entirely new cottage industry with the satellite industry, providing satellite companies an inexpensive way to maintain their satellite networks without building and launching a whole new communications satellite. Once Orbital has placed a number of these in orbit, they will be available to move from satellite to satellite. Once their first repair job is finally finished, they will then move on to another at relatively little cost.

SpaceX competitors team up to try to block its satellite constellation

SpaceX’s main competitors in creating a satellite broadband industry have all filed objections with the FCC to the company’s planned 4,425 satellite constellation that is aimed at providing worldwide internet access.

SpaceX’s plan to provide global broadband internet access using thousands of satellites in low-earth orbit has come under fire from competitors, including Boeing and OneWeb, according to Space Intel Report. The argument is playing out in a series of filings with the Federal Communications Commission, focusing on SpaceX’s request for a temporary waiver from the FCC’s time limits for putting the satellite system into full operation.

The FCC would typically require the system to provide full coverage of U.S. territory within six years of a license being issued, but SpaceX says that’s not enough time to deploy the full 4,425-satellite constellation. Instead, the company proposes launching the first 1,600 satellites in six years, which would leave the northernmost part of Alaska without coverage when the deadline hits. Full U.S. coverage would be provided after the six-year deadline, SpaceX says.

In their own filings, competitors including OneWeb, SES/O3b and Intelsat are urging the FCC not to waive the six-year requirement, Space Intel Report said.

This is garbage, and demonstrates again why it is dangerous to give government too much power. Rather than compete by launching their own satellite constellations first, these companies want the FCC to put its finger on the scale to favor them and stop SpaceX. And I bet the decision will be made based not on what is right but on who gave the most campaign contributions to the right political party.

Russia gets two contracts for Proton

The competition heats up: Russia has signed two new contracts using its newly announced Proton-Medium rocket configuration.

Both contracts are for the same launch. The primary payload will be a Intelsat communications satellite. The secondary payload will be Orbital ATK’s first Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-1), which is actually more significant and somewhat ground-breaking.

The MEV-1 provides life-extending services by taking over the propulsion and attitude control functions. Satellites have an average of 15 years of life on orbit, before they need to be replaced. The vehicle itself has a 15-year design life with the ability to perform numerous dockings and undockings during its life span. “Rather than launching new satellites, operators can extend the life of healthy in-orbit satellites, providing enhanced flexibility through Orbital ATK’s scalable and cost-efficient capabilities,” noted Our simple approach minimizes risk, enhances mission assurance, and enables our customers to realize the maximum value of their in-orbit satellite assets.”

The launch of MEV-1 will involve in-orbit testing and a demonstration to be performed with an Intelsat satellite. MEV-1 will then relocate to the Intelsat satellite scheduled for the mission extension service, which is planned for a five-year period. Intelsat will also have the option to service multiple satellites using the same MEV.

If MEV-1 proves successful, Orbital ATK will have built, launched, and made money from the first robot repair satellite. While at first glance this success suggests that satellite companies will need to launch fewer satellites, thus reducing the market demand for rockets, what it will really do is make the orbiting satellite more useful and profitable, thus encouraging new players to enter the market. The demand for satellites will increase, thus increasing the demand for rockets.

Ain’t freedom and private enterprise grand?

Orbital ATK to launch robotic servicing mission

The competition heats up: Orbital ATK has signed Intelsat to the first contract for a private robotic servicing mission to defunct commercial communications satellites.

Orbital ATK is offering the Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV), a spacecraft designed to rendezvous with a commercial satellite and dock to the nozzle of its apogee kick motor and surrounding adapter ring. The MEV would then take over propulsion and attitude control for the satellite, offering up to five years of extended life.

Intelsat has agreed to be the customer for the first MEV mission, named MEV-1 and scheduled for launch in 2018. MEV-1 will first dock with a retired satellite in a graveyard orbit above stationary orbit to test its systems, then dock with an active Intelsat satellite to extend its life for five years.

I like the concept. Unlike other much more complicated proposals, which propose to actually refuel the satellite’s original tank, this is simple, quick, and quite doable for relatively little developmental cost. Orbital ATK already as the technology to do the rendezvous, from its Cygnus freighter. All they need to refine is the specific technology to attach to the specific satellites.

Just two months after the failure of its second stage during launch, Russia’s Proton rocket successfully put a communications satellite into orbit yesterday.

The competition heats up: Just two months after the failure of its second stage during launch, Russia’s Proton rocket successfully put a communications satellite into orbit yesterday.

This quote, from this Space News article, also implies that there is increasing competitive pressure in the launch industry, which I attribute to the success of SpaceX’s Falcon 9:

Perhaps the most striking element of the launch is that Washington- and Luxembourg-based Intelsat agreed to proceed with it so soon after the August failure of the Proton Breeze-M upper stage. It has been common practice following previous Proton failures that a Russian government mission would be the customer on the return to flight. In this case, Intelsat and its insurance underwriters were sufficiently persuaded that Reston, Va.-based ILS and Proton prime contractor Khrunichev Space Center of Moscow had come to grips with the issue to agree to be the customer for the first flight after the failure.

From a past SpaceX critic: SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy could wipe its launch competition.

From a past SpaceX critic: SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy could wipe out its launch competition.

This announcement [of SpaceX’s deal with Intelsat] is an indication that SpaceX is now threatening the dominance of Arianespace and ILS in the commercial launch arena. If a Falcon 9 Heavy can carry two or more large GEO communications satellites for half the launch price of an Ariane 5 or Proton M booking, then this could spell the end of their commercial operations as going concerns. It is not only on the commercial front that SpaceX may dominate. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Heavy launch service promises to be less than half the cost of using equivalent Atlas and Delta rockets. So even the cosy launch provider-governmental relationships that previously benefited the likes of Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Pratt and Whitney/Rocketdyne could now be threatened.

As much of a fan of SpaceX as I am, and as much as I agree with the above statement, we must remember that Falcon Heavy is not yet built. Moreover, I suspect that the deal with Intelsat does not yet include any transfer of funds. SpaceX has a long way to go before any of this happens. Nonetheless, the company’s continued success very obviously is beginning to make its competitors nervous.

SpaceX has gotten its first contract, with Intelsat, for its not-yet-built Falcon Heavy rocket.

The competition heats up: SpaceX has gotten its first contract, with Intelsat, for its not-yet-built Falcon Heavy rocket.

The Falcon Heavy when completed will be the most powerful rocket since the Saturn 5. If SpaceX can get it funded through commercial contracts, it will end forever the need for government subsidies in the aerospace industry. Government as a customer will still exist, of course, but it will no longer be in charge.

Lack of U.S. government interest in commercial refueling mission causes problems

A lack of U.S. government interest in a privately designed satellite refueling technology has caused the company to pull back its plans.

MDA had signed a contract with the communications satellite company Intelsat to refuel some of its orbiting satellites, but needed additional customers to make a go of it. It had hoped the U.S. Defense Department would show interest, but they have not.

This is exactly where the government should be investing its capital, and that it is not tells us a lot about the real lack of sincerity behind the Obama administration’s claims that it wants to encourage private space. I also suspect that the turf war with satellite companies and defense contractors helped discourage Defense Department interest.