SpaceX mission this week to kick off busy launch calendar for SES

The SES 22 communications satellite during encapsulation inside SpaceX’s payload fairing. Credit: SpaceX

A new European-built television broadcasting satellite to cover the United States is set for liftoff Wednesday on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, the first of 11 SES-owned telecom spacecraft scheduled to fly on six launches from Cape Canaveral by the end of the year.

The launches for SES, one of the largest traditional telecom satellite operators, will use five SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets and one United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

Five of the satellites, including the SES 22 spacecraft set for launch Wednesday, are designed for C-band television broadcast services over the United States. SES also plans to launch the first six satellites for the company’s O3b mPower broadband network, providing data connectivity and internet services around the world.

The first six O3b mPower satellites will launch on three Falcon 9 rockets, heading for positions in a unique orbit at an altitude of about 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers). Those three launches are currently on track to fly by the end of 2022, according to SES.

The upcoming satellite deployment campaign comes after a relatively quiet period in launches for SES, with just one new SES satellite launched since 2019. But the schedules for two different segments of SES’s business have aligned to create this year’s rapid-fire launch cadence.

The O3b mPower program, first announced in 2017, is nearing the finish line in development. And the SES 22 launch is the first mission to replenish SES’s fleet of C-band television broadcast satellites to replace C-band capacity being transitioned to 5G cellular network services by the Federal Communications Commission.

“SES 22 is a C-band satellite, so it’s part of our program of C-band clearing in the U.S.,” said Christophe De Hauwer, SES’s chief strategy and development officer. “It’s a C-band only satellite. It will be launched to 135 degrees west, which is the location we are replenishing, from where we will provide mostly TV and radio services over the U.S., but also some data services over the country.”

From its parking spot in geostationary orbit more than 22,000 miles (nearly 36,000 kilometers) over the equator at 135 degrees west longitude, SES 22 will begin a 15-year mission beaming cable TV programming for SES’s corporate clients.

The SES 22 satellite, weighing about 7,700 pounds (3.5 metric tons), is heading for a position in geostationary orbit after launch Wednesday from Cape Canaveral. The spacecraft, built by Thales Alenia Space in France, is buttoned up inside the nose cone of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket for liftoff during a two-hour window opening at 5:04 p.m. EDT (2104 GMT).

The 229-foot-tall Falcon 9 rocket will head east after departing Florida’s Space Coast, powered by nine kerosene-fueled Merlin main engines generating 1.7 million pounds of thrust. The first stage, tail number B1073, will fly on its second mission and head for a vertical landing on SpaceX’s drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean more than 400 miles (about 670 kilometers) east of Cape Canaveral.

The upper stage’s single Merlin engine will fire two times to inject the SES 22 spacecraft into an elliptical, or oval-shaped, transfer orbit ranging more than 20,000 miles above Earth. Deployment of the SES 22 satellite from the Falcon 9 upper stage is scheduled at T+plus 33 minutes, 26 seconds, according to a mission timeline provided by SpaceX.

The SES 22 communications satellite during encapsulation inside SpaceX’s payload fairing. Credit: SpaceX

SES 22 will unfurl its solar panels and antennas, and perform a series of orbit-raising burns with a liquid-fueled engine to circularize its orbit at geostationary altitude over the equator. After completing in-orbit verification testing, SES 22 is scheduled to enter commercial service in early August, according to De Hauwer.

The Federal Communications Commission’s finalized a program in 2020 to clear 300 megahertz of C-band spectrum for the roll-out of 5G mobile connectivity networks.

The FCC auctioned U.S. C-band spectrum — previously used for satellite-based video broadcast services to millions of customers — to 5G operators.

In compensation for losing the spectrum, Intelsat and SES — the two largest C-band satellite operators in the U.S. market — are set to receive $4.87 billion and $3.97 billion from 5G bidders, respectively, 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.

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, by the winners of the FCC’s C-band auction.

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 GHz swath of the C-band spectrum. The lower portion of the band previously allocated to satellite operators — 3.7 to 4.0 GHz — is being transitioned to 5G services.

De Hauwer said SES has already cleared the lower 120 MHz of the C-band spectrum through reallocation of programming on existing satellites, but meeting the rest of the C-band clearing mandate requires the launch of new spacecraft. In 2020, SES ordered six new C-band satellites, including a spare, and Intelsat procured seven C-band satellites.

SES says the new C-band satellites will enable the broadcast of digital TV services to nearly 120 million homes in the United States.

“We have to have more satellites in the sky so that we then spread the loading on a larger number of satellites as opposed to what we have now,” De Hauwer said. “We will launch five C-band satellites. They’re all going to be launched this year, or this is certainly the plan. With that, we’ll be good. That’s the capacity we need in the sky in order to do the repacking (of the C-band spectrum).”

A Falcon 9 rocket stands on pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station before launch with the SES 22 satellite. Credit: SpaceX

After the launch of SES 22 this week, two more C-band satellites are assigned to fly to space on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket in the third quarter of this year, according to De Hauwer. Sources said that mission is currently set for launch in late August or early September.

The SES 20 and 21 satellites flying on the Atlas 5 rocket were built by Boeing, and are fitted with all-electric propulsion systems. The electric thrusters are more efficient but less powerful than conventional liquid-fueled rocket engines, and would take months to reposition the SES 20 and 21 satellites from an elliptical transfer orbit into their final circular operating orbits in the geostationary belt.

The Atlas 5’s Centaur upper stage has the ability to place the SES 20 and 21 satellites very close to their operating positions in geostationary orbit.

“This rocket is the right rocket for that specific mission,” De Hauwer said. “We could not afford an orbit-raising of a number of months. It has to be able to do direct injection, so the two satellites will be almost immediately in geostationary orbit and that required the Atlas 5 from ULA.”

Two more C-band satellites — SES 18 and 19 built by Northrop Grumman — will launch together on a single Falcon 9 rocket around the end of the year. Those satellites use chemical propulsion for faster orbit-raising, so they can launch into a standard elliptical transfer orbit.

Launching all the new C-band satellites quickly was a critical part of the spectrum clearing program.

“Part of our main criteria in selecting the different vendors was what will be the timeline for them to deliver the spacecraft,” De Hauwer said. “Timing is everything in this program. Once the satellites are launched, we then need to move the customers around when the satellites are being moved.

Thales Alenia Space built the SES 22 satellite in 22 months, De Hauwer said.


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