Late Sunday evening saw two satellites launched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket company, the first time that SpaceX has launched a pair of large communication satellites. The mission was flawless. However, the two craft, for Eutelsat and Permira-backed Asia Broadcast Satellites, are rather special.
The two are entirely dependent on electric propulsion and have no traditional chemical propulsion on board. The Xenon-fuelled ION electric thrusters work very efficiently, but also very slowly. Indeed, the two satellites will take around 5-6 months to reach their working orbits.
The launch took place at 10.50pm Florida time (03.50am GMT), and broke the sound barrier just 73 seconds later, with the rocket’s 9 Merlin booster engines cutting out, as designed, just short of the three-minute mark.
The rockets two passengers were deployed, initially ABS-3A and then a few minutes later Eutelsat’s 115 West B craft (ordered as a SatMex craft). They were ordered on the same day with manufacturer Boeing, and launched as a pair.
The innovation of the Boeing 702SP allows satellite operators to order smaller satellites that can host extra communications capacity to replace the load freed up with the removal of the fuel tanks, said Mark Spiwak, president of Boeing Satellite Systems. “One of the big drivers was cost,” Spiwak said. “We’re able to get the launch cost significantly reduced, get more payload mass to orbit, and reduce the overall cycle time of (building each satellite).”