EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – At a time of unprecedented change in the satellite communications industry, fleet operator SES looks forward to the December launch of its first Boeing-built O3b mPower broadband satellites.
“We think we have something special,” said Ruy Pinto, chief technology officer of SES, referring to the constellation of 11 O3b mPower satellites destined for medium Earth orbit. “This second generation of MEO satellites is that holy grail of full configurability.”
Each of the 11 satellites in the O3b mPower constellation can generate up to 5,000 spot beams. While SES probably won’t need that much, the company appreciates the flexibility offered by the satellite’s software-defined payload.
“You can just download the coefficients and you can change the beam sizes,” Pinto said Nov. 10 during a press briefing at the Boeing Satellite Factory here. “And you can create that dynamically. Every minute you can change the configuration.
Flexibility is increasingly important to satellite operators given the complex regulatory environment and spectrum interference issues they face, said Ryan Reid, president of Boeing Commercial Satellite Systems International. Fleet operators must be “able to control and fine-tune with a high degree of precision and at a very rapid rate where the power is distributed or where the power is not distributed”, he added. .
The 11 O3b mPower satellites are expected to be launched next year. The first eight will be launched in pairs on four SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets. The last three will share another Falcon 9.
After launch, it will take approximately five months for each O3b mPower satellite to rocket into its designated orbit and an additional month for commissioning.
The discussions that prompted Boeing and SES to work together on the O3b mPower constellation began in 2016.
SES, one of the world’s largest satellite fleet operators, sought a fundamentally different approach to satellite communications. The Luxembourg company wanted to integrate satellites into a network capable of dynamically reconfiguring power and bandwidth to provide fiber-like connections anywhere in the world.
At the time, Boeing was conducting internal research and development on marrying terrestrial 5G technologies with high-precision semiconductor manufacturing to create integrated phased arrays.
“It really becomes an extension of the software on the ground to provide full flexibility in all the dimensions that flexibility needs to be provided,” Reid said.
During the development and manufacture of the O3b mPower constellation, more than 10 SES engineers were housed in the Boeing Satellite Factory.
“They weren’t there just looking over someone’s shoulder to say, ‘Did you check that box,'” Pinto said. let’s deploy that.”
Meanwhile, SES was working with industry partners to update ground networks and create Adaptive Resource Control, software that connects SES satellites in geostationary (GEO) and medium Earth orbit with ground terminals and gateways.
“We’re trying to make it API driven,” Pinto said. “So if we buy another GEO or partner with a [low-Earth orbit] constellation, we can just plug it in. You plug in platforms, constellations or satellites.
Recent changes in government and commercial markets have highlighted the need for flexibility.
“What we’ve been through in recent years with the pandemic and the conflict in Ukraine has just highlighted some changes in the way we see space,” Pinto said. “These trends existed before, but they have accelerated in recent years.”
Governments around the world have always considered space capabilities important. Now they view the space as strategic, Pinto said.
Commercially, the satellite communications market is being disrupted by SpaceX’s Starlink broadband constellation, Amazon Project Kuiper and other companies catering to increased demand for low-latency global connectivity.
“These companies and the owners of these companies aren’t going into this market just because they want to,” Pinto said. “They see that there are patterns of growth and patterns of disruptive transformation.”
O3b mPower satellites can be launched in pairs and trios due to their size. The software-defined satellites, built on Boeing’s 702X platform, are much smaller than traditional geostationary communications satellites, but larger than the first generation of O3b satellites built by Thales Alenia Space.
Boeing modified the 702 platform and solar arrays to withstand the harsh radiation of medium Earth orbit for 10 years, the design life of O3b mPower.
“Unlike a geostationary satellite where fuel tends to be the limiting factor, power is the limiting factor for these satellites in the radiation environment,” Reid said. “Fortunately, as satellites age, the ground system can constantly reconfigure them so that they degrade gracefully over time.”
Beyond O3b mPower
As they prepare to launch the first two O3b mPower satellites in mid-December, SES executives are looking ahead.
“We are already thinking about the third generation,” Pinto said. “What’s the next step in technology development?” How do we stay relevant in terms of technology? »
Improved power, configurability and coverage will all be important.
“We want to increase power from single-digit gigabits for a single site to double-digit gigabits,” Pinto said. “And we want to have more coverage than what O3b mPower provides.”
SES executives are talking to manufacturers of third-generation mPower constellation satellites ahead of a formal bidding process.
“But it’s not about the bidding, it’s about how we partner and stretch the envelope,” Pinto said. “What can we deploy in three or four years that will still be a game-changer for us?”