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Satellite electrical propulsion to grow

May 10, 2023

It isn’t so very long ago that electrical propulsion for satellites was a very new kid on the block. Boeing’s Xenon-Ion Propulsion System (XIPS) was introduced on the (then) Hughes 702 versions its high-power versions of its popular HS-702 craft and used for final orbital insertion.

December 1999 saw the launch of an HS-702 with XIPS for the then PanAmSat’s Galaxy 11 (PAS is now owned by Intelsat) with a 15-year life plan. Despite suffering eventual problems with its solar array mirrors the satellite worked well until September 2022, and helped by XIPS.

These electrically propelled craft take much longer to get to orbit, and save large quantities of chemical propulsion fuel while enroute. Once in their correct orbital slot they can use the electrical equipment to maintain their correct orbital positions. An electrothermal engine uses a nozzle to convert heat into linear motion, so they are true rockets even though the energy producing the heat comes from an external source.

Electric thrusters typically use much less propellant than chemical rockets because they have a higher exhaust speed (and operate at a higher specific impulse) than chemical rockets. Due to limited electric power the thrust is much weaker compared to chemical rockets, but electric propulsion can provide thrust for a longer time.

A timely new study suggests that XIPS and the other electrical propulsion systems are now very well understood and increasingly commonplace.

New technologies include Laser propulsion and Photon-based devices. A current experiment uses old-fashioned water on the Momentus-built Vigoride space tug (officially the Microwave Electrothermal Thruster) and was used for orbital raising of the craft.

Fortune Business Insights (FBI) says that last year’s value of electrical equipment for use on satellites was worth $13.59 billion. This year that is forecast to grow to $14.72 billion, and then to enjoy CAGR building by 7.61 per cent annually to $24.59 billion by 2030.

FBI says: “The global electric propulsion satellite market is anticipated to register strong growth due to the satellite’s widespread usage in a variety of space-based applications including navigational & telecommunication, astronomy, earth observation, environmental studies, space exploration, and others. Small satellites are being preferred over medium and heavy satellites as they can be used for civilian, commercial, and military applications. These satellites are also gaining traction among end-users due to the high demand for satellite constellations, cyberattack threats, commercialization of the space industry, and growing focus of new market players on small satellites. Such factors will play a vital role in expanding the electric propulsion satellite market share.

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