aerospace astronomy Boeing falcon 9 SES spacex

SES taps SpaceX for two additional Falcon 9 launches

WASHINGTON — Fleet operator SES on Aug. 20 said it selected SpaceX to launch four recently ordered O3b mPower broadband satellites. 

The agreement means SpaceX will launch all 11 of SES’s O3b mPower satellites to medium Earth orbit across four Falcon 9 launches. Boeing is building all 11 mPower satellites. 

SES chose SpaceX in 2019 to launch seven O3b mPower satellites on two Falcon 9 missions in 2021. As the O3b mPower program matured, however, SES realized a max of three O3b mPower satellites could fit on a single Falcon 9, necessitating at least one more launch. 

SES’s four-satellite expansion order, announced Aug. 7, further increased its launch needs. 

SES has now grouped the satellites into trios for the first three Falcon 9 launches, scheduled for the third quarter of 2021, the first quarter of 2022, and the second half of 2022. The last two satellites are projected to launch in the second half of 2024. Each mission will take place from Cape Canaveral, Florida. 

The O3b mPower constellation is designed as a multi-terabit global network capable of aiming gigabits of Ka-band capacity at customers in aviation, government, energy and other sectors. The constellation builds off of SES’s current O3b fleet of 20 satellites built by Thales Alenia Space. 

SES operates around 70 satellites, comprising roughly 50 in the geostationary arc for television and broadband, and 20 in medium Earth orbit for low-latency internet services. 


5G aerospace astronomy Atlas 5 Boeing Boeing 702SP C-band Commercial Space Electric Propulsion falcon 9 Federal Communications Commission GEOStar 3 Launch Mission Reports News Northrop Grumman SES SES 18 SES 19 SES 20 SES 21 spacex Telecom United Launch Alliance X Home Page Highlight

ULA, SpaceX win contracts to launch satellites for SES in 2022

File photo of a previous Atlas 5 launch in the “531” configuration with three solid rocket boosters. Credit: United Launch Alliance

SES has selected United Launch Alliance and SpaceX to launch up to five new commercial C-band communications satellites from Cape Canaveral in 2022 aboard Atlas 5 and Falcon 9 rockets, officials announced Wednesday.

Two Boeing-built communications satellites will launch together on a ULA Atlas 5 rocket, and two telecom craft made by Northrop Grumman will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, according to SES, a global communications satellite operator based in Luxembourg.

The SES 18 and 19 satellites, based on Northrop Grumman’s GEOStar 3 satellite platform, will launch stacked together on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in 2022, SES said. SES also awarded SpaceX a contract to launch another C-band satellite if required.

The SES 20 and 21 communications satellites are slated to launch in tandem aboard a ULA Atlas 5 rocket, also in 2022, SES said.

SES ordered the four satellites from Boeing and Northrop Grumman in June to replace C-band capacity being transitioned to 5G cellular network services by the Federal Communications Commission. At the same time, Intelsat ordered six new C-band communications satellites from Maxar and Northrop Grumman as part of its C-band transition plan. Launch services contracts for the new Intelsat satellites have not been announced.

SES said it considered only U.S. launchers when awarding the launch services contracts, and having the new satellites in geostationary orbit on time is a high priority. That essentially left ULA and SpaceX as the only companies eligible for the contracts.

Financial terms for the launch contracts were not disclosed by SES, SpaceX, or ULA.

Suzanne Ong, an SES spokesperson, said the division of launch contracts between ULA and SpaceX — rivals in the U.S. launch business — fit the different offerings provided by the Atlas 5 and Falcon 9 rockets.

The Atlas 5 rocket will deploy the SES 20 and 21 satellites into a higher orbit, utilizing the long-duration, multiple-restart capability of the rocket’s Centaur upper stage. That will place the satellites closer to their final operating positions in geostationary orbit more than 22,000 miles (nearly 36,000 kilometers) over the equator.

SES 20 and 21 will be built by Boeing and based on the Boeing 702SP spacecraft bus with all-electric propulsion. Electric thrusters are more efficient than conventional rocket engines, allowing the satellite to need less fuel during its mission. That results in a lighter satellite.

But the electric thrusters do not have as much thrust as a liquid-fueled thruster, so it takes longer for a satellite with all-electric propulsion to reach geostationary orbit.

“The Boeing 702SP satellites, relying only on electrical propulsion, would take longer to reach designated geostationary orbit if launched on SpaceX,” Ong said in response to questions from Spaceflight Now. “This is the reason why ULA is launching Boeing satellites and SpaceX is launching the NG (Northrop Grumman) satellites.”

Jessica Rye, a ULA spokesperson, said the SES 20 and 21 satellites will launch on the “531” variant of the Atlas 5 rocket with a 5-meter payload fairing and three strap-on solid rocket boosters. That configuration has flown three times to date, and is set to launch a fourth time in September with a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office, the U.S. government’s spy satellite agency.

File photo of a Falcon 9 launch from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: SpaceX

“Clearing mid-band spectrum expeditiously while protecting cable neighborhoods across America is a huge undertaking and one that requires partners that can deliver mission success and schedule assurance,” said Steve Collar, CEO at SES. “We are thrilled to be working with ULA again and partnering to meet the FCC’s ambitious timeline for the accelerated clearing of C-band spectrum.”

“We are pleased SES selected ULA and our proven Atlas 5 for this important commercial launch service,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and CEO. “Atlas 5 is known for its unmatched level of schedule certainty and reliability and this launch is critical to the timely clearing of C-band spectrum, empowering America’s accelerated implementation of 5G.

“ULA’s legacy of performance, precision and mission design flexibility allow us to deliver a tailored launch service that minimizes orbit raising time and perfectly meet our customer’s requirements,” Bruno said in a statement. “We are thrilled to provide this optimized launch solution to SES for this crucial launch.”

Two SES satellites have launched on previous Atlas 5 rocket missions in 2004 and 2006. ULA now has two commercial launches in its Atlas 5 backlog, along with a ViaSat 3 broadband payload due to fly on the most power Atlas 5 configuration with five solid rocket boosters.

The Northrop Grumman-built SES 18 and 19 satellites will use a combination of electric and liquid propulsion for post-launch orbit-raising maneuvers.

“We have a deep and trusted relationship with SpaceX having been the first to launch a commercial satellite with them and subsequently the first commercial company to adopt the flight-proven booster and we could not be more confident in their ability to deliver on this time-critical mission,” Collar said in a statement.

Six SES satellites have launched on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets to date.

“SES is one of SpaceX‘s most-valued partners, and we are proud of their continued trust in our capabilities to reliably deliver their satellites to orbit,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer. “We are excited to once again play a role in executing SES’s solutions to meet their customers’ needs.”

SES will soon order two additional C-band satellites from U.S. manufacturers as ground spares. The contract option with SpaceX to place a third C-band satellite into orbit would cover the launch of one of the ground spares, Ong said.

“The ground spares will only be launched if there is a systematic problem that delays the satellite construction, or if there is a launch failure or any other issue that puts the accelerated clearing schedule at risk,” Ong said in response to questions from Spaceflight Now. “In case of a launch failure, SpaceX will launch one of the other C-band satellites that SES will order soon.”

The four SES satellites are part of the Federal Communications Commission’s order finalized earlier this year to clear 300 megahertz of C-band spectrum for the roll-out of 5G mobile connectivity networks.

The FCC plans to auction U.S. C-band spectrum — currently used for satellite-based video broadcast services to millions of customers — to 5G operators in December. In compensation for losing the spectrum, Intelsat is set to receive $4.87 billion and SES will get $3.97 billion from 5G bidders 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.

Artist’s concept of the SES 20 and SES 21 communications satellites to be manufactured by Boeing. Credit: Boeing

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.

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

Ong said the ground spares SES is set to order soon will be available to launch on short notice to ensure SES can meet the FCC’s deadline to clear the upper part of the C-band spectrum for 5G services.

When it ordered the four new satellites from Boeing and Northrop Grumman in June, SES said each satellite will have 10 primary transponders, plus back-up equipment, to deliver television services to more than 120 million homes and enable other critical data services. At that time, SES said the satellites are scheduled for launch in the third quarter of 2022.

SES said in May that its board of directors approved an investment envelope of $1.6 billion to procure and launch the new C-band satellites, and pay for other equipment and services, such as signal filters on ground antennas, to accommodate the C-band transition to 5G services.

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

aerospace astronomy Atlas 5 C-band falcon 9 FCC SES spacex ULA

SpaceX, ULA to launch C-band satellites for SES

WASHINGTON — Commercial satellite operator SES has selected SpaceX and United Launch Alliance to each launch two geostationary satellites designed to replace C-band capacity in the United States that the Federal Communications Commission is repurposing for 5G cellular networks. 

SpaceX’s agreement includes room to launch one additional “contingency satellite” that has not yet been ordered. 

SES said Aug. 5 that ULA will launch two satellites built by Boeing on a single Atlas 5 in 2022. SpaceX will launch two satellites built by Northrop Grumman on a Falcon 9 rocket that same year. 

SES emphasized its decision to procure exclusively U.S.-built satellites and rockets, as the cost for both will be covered by winning bidders of the FCC’s December C-band spectrum auction. In both launch announcements, SES said it is “investing in America” as it works to repack customers using 500 megahertz of C-band spectrum today into 200 megahertz by early December 2023. 

SES, along with Intelsat and Eutelsat, are under pressure — but not required — to rely on U.S. companies for replacement C-band satellites and associated infrastructure and services. 

The companies told the FCC two years ago that they would exclusively order U.S.-built satellites if the FCC allowed them (with Telesat) to privately auction C-band spectrum, a move expected to generate upwards of $60 billion in proceeds. 

The FCC, facing congressional opposition to a private auction, ultimately chose a public auction where proceeds will be directed to the U.S. treasury. But the FCC adopted auction rules requiring winning bidders to pay for moving costs so satellite operators can continue to serve their C-band customers, mainly television broadcasters, with less spectrum. 

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), who chairs a Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees the FCC, wrote FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in May urging the commission to require satellite operators buy their reimbursable replacement C-band infrastructure from U.S. companies. 

“If the American taxpayer is ultimately going to foot the bill of foreign satellite companies, then we need to ensure as much of that money stays here at home as possible,” Kennedy wrote. 

Pai, during a June 16 Senate hearing, told Kennedy that the FCC had no authority to mandate U.S. purchases absent a national security justification. 

SES has nonetheless sought to steer clear of additional congressional heat by sourcing auction-related satellites and launch services solely from U.S. companies. 

SES described ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket as “an American launch vehicle launched from the American soil,” language similar to the way NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine describes the agency’s commercial crew program

SES said its “long-standing relationship with SpaceX signifies its latest commitment to the U.S.”

The Luxembourg-based operator plans to order two more C-band satellites, according to the company’s spectrum transition plan filed to the FCC in June. The company estimates spending $1.67 billion on C-band infrastructure — $1.25 billion on replacement satellites and launches, and $420 million on ground infrastructure and other costs. 

SES is striving to meet a December 2023 target to vacate the spectrum in order to receive $3.97 billion in incentive payments for clearing C-band on an accelerated timeline. The FCC is mandating satellite operators exit the lower 300 megahertz of C-band by December 2025, but has set up a program to incentivize exits two years sooner. Those incentive payments, like the reimbursements for replacement satellites, would come from the auction’s winners. 

SpaceX and ULA released statements on the SES launch awards. 

“SES is one of SpaceX‘s most-valued partners, and we are proud of their continued trust in our capabilities to reliably deliver their satellites to orbit,” SpaceX president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell said in a news release. “We are excited to once again play a role in executing SES’s solutions to meet their customers’ needs.”

ULA president and chief executive Tory Bruno said the company will “deliver a tailored launch service that minimizes orbit raising time and perfectly meet our customer’s requirements.” 

“We are thrilled to provide this optimized launch solution to SES for this crucial launch,” he said.