SpaceX launch to deploy first in new generation of Airbus-built satellites

Eutelsat’s Hotbird 13F communications satellite. Credit: Airbus

The first in a new line of Airbus-built communications satellites is stowed for launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket Friday night from Cape Canaveral, ready for a mission to beam hundreds of TV channels to Eutelsat customers across Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.

The Hotbird 13F satellite is built on the new Eurostar Neo spacecraft platform designed by Airbus Defense and Space, with funding support from the European Space Agency. The Eurostar Neo satellite design can accommodate additional payload capacity, and introduces more efficient power and thermal control systems than the previous generation of Eurostar E3000 Airbus-built satellites.

“It’s a huge new product, payload centric, more competitive than anything we have ever done,” said François Gaullier, head of telecommunications satellites at Airbus. “And we are more than happy to have developed this product, of which Hotbird 13F will be the first one to be launched.”

ESA provided about 130 million euros, or $126 million at current exchange rates, to help pay for development of the new satellite platform. Airbus funded the rest of the development cost with its own money under the umbrella of a public-private partnership.

Eutelsat, a Paris-based commercial satellite operator, was the first customer to sign up to use the new Eurostar Neo spacecraft platform. The launch of Eutelsat’s Hotbird 13F will be followed in November by the launch of a nearly identical satellite for Eutelsat named Hotbird 13G.

“This Eurostar Neo satellite has been a partnership project done with Airbus, and with the first customer Eutelsat,” said Elodie Viau, ESA’s director of telecommunications and integrated applications. “This Eurostar Neo is a new set of satellites that are very competitive, that are optimized to be (cost) effective, and to use electrical propulsion in a very optimized way to allow more and more payload capacity.”

On its journey toward geostationary orbit, Hotbird 13F will use PPS5000 plasma orbit-raising thrusters developed by the French company Safran. The fuel-efficient plasma propulsion system relies on xenon gas and electricity to generate thrust, rather than a conventional liquid rocket fuel like hydrazine. That reduces the weight of the satellite, allowing engineers to launch on a smaller rocket or add additional payloads to support more communications capacity for customers.

So far, Airbus has sold eight satellites based on the new Eurostar Neo platform, including Hotbird 13F. Other customers for the Eurostar Neo satellite design include the UK Ministry of Defense, which signed a contract with Airbus to build a secure military communications satellite on the new spacecraft platform.

According to an Airbus spokesperson, Hotbird 13F weighs 9,868 pounds (4,476 kilograms) at launch. The spacecraft is cocooned inside the nose cone of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, awaiting liftoff during a launch window opening at 11:26 p.m. EDT Friday (0326 GMT Saturday). The launch window extends until 1:22 a.m. EDT (0522 GMT).

The forecast team from the U.S. Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron predicts a 90% chance of favorable conditions for liftoff Friday night.

The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 rocket will blast off from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, powered by a first stage booster making its third flight to space. Nine kerosene-fueled Merlin 1D engines will generate 1.7 million pounds of thrust for the initial lift out of Earth’s atmosphere, then a second stage with a single Merlin engine will fire two times to inject the Hotbird 13F spacecraft into an elliptical, or oval-shaped, geostationary transfer orbit.

The first stage booster will return to a landing on a SpaceX drone ship parked east of Cape Canaveral in the Atlantic Ocean.

The rocket’s payload fairing protecting the Hotbird 13F satellite will jettison about three-and-a-half minutes after blastoff, once the rocket reaches the rarefied airless environment of space. The final maneuver by the second stage engine is scheduled to begin around 29 minutes into the mission, followed by separation of the Hotbird 13F spacecraft at T+plus 36 minutes, 11 seconds, according to a mission timeline released by SpaceX.

The launcher’s guidance computer will target a geostationary transfer orbit ranging more than 20,000 miles above Earth.

After flying free of its SpaceX launcher, Hotbird 13F will unfurl solar panels and switch on its plasma propulsion system for several months of orbit-raising maneuver to reach a circular geostationary orbit more than 22,000 miles (nearly 36,000 kilometers) over the equator. The orbit-raising using electric propulsion takes longer than maneuvers relying on conventional rocket engines.

Hotbird 13F will orbit in lock-step with Earth’s rotation at 13 degrees east longitude.

By the middle of next year, Hotbird 13F should be ready to enter commercial service to start a 15-year mission broadcasting television programming to Eutelsat customers. Hotbird 13G, set for launch in November on another Falcon 9 rocket, will follow about a month after its twin satellite, heading for the same position in geostationary orbit.

“Hotbird 13F is the first of two satellites to be placed at the Eutelsat flagship 13 degrees east position, so this is an important event for us,” said Pascal Homsy, Eutelsat’s chief technical officer. “It will be the first satellite based on the electric propulsion Eurostar Neo platform by Airbus, fostering innovation and competitiveness in the European space industry.”

Thanks to improvements in satellite communications technology, Eutelsat will only need two new Hotbird satellites to replace the three aging Hotbird spacecraft operating at 13 degree east.

Homsy said the Hotbird fleet at 13 degrees east form the highest capacity satellite broadcasting system covering the Europe, Middle East, and North Africa regions, delivering 1,000 TV channels to more than 160 million homes. Hotbird 13F and 13G will broadcast signals in Ku-band frequencies.

“We have something like over 600 pay TV channels, 300 free to air channels, 450 high definition TV, and 14 ultra high definition channels broadcast from this flagship 13 degrees east position,” Homsy said. “We are able also to provide 500 radio stations and multimedia services.”

Viau, head of ESA’s telecom directorate, said the space agency encourages its partners to launch their satellites on European rockets. Eutelsat, which owns the Hotbird 13F spacecraft, decided to launch the mission on a SpaceX rocket instead of with an Ariane launcher, based at the European-run spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

There are only three Ariane 5 rockets left to fly before retirement of that version of the Ariane launcher. And Europe’s new Ariane 6 rocket is not expected to debut until some time next year.

“There was just no possibility to take a seat on Ariane 5,” Homsy said. “We cannot delay the launch of this Hotbird and its brother in a month simply because they have to replace the three existing satellites which are already operating at 13 degrees east, which are going to come to an end of life by the time the two new satellites will come into service. So we had a very harsh deadline.

“We could not take any risks, and the only option that was finally available at hand was to launch from Florida,” Homsy said. “We would have loved to have launched from Kourou, but it was just not feasible.”

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