Eutelsat’s latest craft, its 115 West B satellite, launched on March 2nd is going to take eight months to get to orbit. The reason is the satellite’s use of a Xenon-Ion all-electric Plasma propulsion system.
The satellite is part of the Eutelsat Americas fleet, and it was always recognised that all-electric propulsion is a ‘slow but steady’ mechanism to get into orbit, and seemingly slow when compared to the speedier – but much more costly – chemical propulsion.
In all respects the launch (along with the ABS-3A satellite for Asia Broadcasting) went flawlessly. The two satellites were injected five minutes apart from one another by SpaceX’s Falcon-9 rocket’s upper stage into very high super-synchronous orbits reaching an apogee point of 63,000 kms (39,146 miles) into space, and a low (perigee) point of just 410 kms (254 miles).
Both satellites were built by Boeing using its modified 702SP platform, which is essentially a conventional satellite but with the on-board chemical fuel tanks removed. Reportedly both Eutelsat and ABS got a ‘bargain basement’ launch price of “under $30 million” each, which helps compensate for the length of time getting into orbit.
There’s another upside to the slow arrival in orbit. A senior ABS engineer says that both satellites should be working far beyond the normal 15 years or so of a chemically-fuelled satellite. “If everything goes well, and we have no issues with the electric thrusters, [ABS-3A] should be in orbit and last for about 22 years,” said Ken Betaharon, CTO at ABS.
March 6th saw the Eutelsat satellite spread its 33 metres of solar panels, and March 12th saw the shift into ‘orbit raising’ mode. Having the solar panels fully deployed means that the electricity to power the ionisation process is available.