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To do business, reprogrammable satellites now the requirement for manufacturers



PARIS — Manufacturers say software-defined satellites that can redesign beams and capacity have shifted from a wish-list feature to a requirement for operators. 

Satellite operators are still buying multi-ton geostationary satellites at below average rates, but for manufacturers to close even a limited number of sales, so-called “flexible” satellites that can dynamically move capacity around are a must-have. 

“Real-time flexibility: that’s the price of admission these days,” Guy Beutelschies, Lockheed Martin Space vice president of communication satellite solutions, said Sept. 11 at the World Satellite Business Week conference here. “Most customers that we’re talking to want that capability onboard and are demanding that capability onboard to have that reprogrammability.”

This year, three manufacturers have introduced dedicated reprogrammable satellite products — Airbus with OneSat, Boeing with its 702X series and Thales Alenia Space with Inspire. But regardless of whether manufacturers have a nameplate reprogrammable satellite, all said they are incorporating digital payload technology to give their satellites flexibility. 

The reason operators are demanding flexible satellites is because many are no longer comfortable building a 15-year business plan around a new satellite since telecom demand is continuing its shift from television broadcasting to internet connectivity. 

Jean-Marc Nasr, head of space systems at Airbus Defence and Space, said operators can now only comfortably predict about five years of business, meaning they want satellites that can adapt as their customers and markets change. 

“That’s probably the most important element of it, the need for flexibility,” he said. 

Jean-Luïc Gall, chief executive of Thales Alenia Space, said that two-thirds of flexible, geostationary satellites will be medium to large satellites after 2022 or 2023. Instead of weight, he characterized such satellites by a 10- to 15-kilowatt power range, saying digital payloads are more energy intensive than conventional satellites. The remaining third will be even more powerful very-high-throughput satellites or small GEOs tailored for niche markets, he said. 

Flexibility vs total cost of ownership

Manufacturers said that while flexibility is the current must-have feature, much of that emphasis stems from the near-term unpredictability of the satcom market. In the long term, operators will still care mainly about the overall cost of their satellite systems. 

“There is an overemphasis on flexibility because the customers haven’t quite figured out what the long-term business cases are,” said Dan Jablonsky, president and CEO of Maxar Technologies. “When they figure that out, there will continue to be a [focus] on cost versus how flexible the comparative use cases are.”

Frank DeMauro, vice president and general manager of Northrop Grumman’s space systems division, said his company is investing in flexible technologies for GEOstar-3, the last satellite platform Orbital ATK released before it was acquired by Northrop Grumman last year. Flexibility shouldn’t overshadow operator financial returns, though, DeMauro said.

“The company who will be able to provide the lowest cost for those kinds of satellites will be the winner,” added Galle. 

Jablonsky said Space Systems Loral, now just referred to as Maxar, is increasingly focused on civil and military space technologies that it can fold into commercial satellites. He said Maxar can break even with one or two contracts a year for GEO satellites or spacecraft that use its flagship 1300 GEO platform, as opposed to the three to four contracts SSL sought before restructuring

Once a leader in the GEO satellite market, Maxar has not won any telecom orders this year. The company does have a 1300 platform order from NASA for the Power and Propulsion Element of the future lunar Gateway space station, expected to launch in late 2022

Remembering the ground

Manufacturers said reprogrammable satellites are requiring more investment in the ground control systems needed to operate satellites and steer their capacity. 

“Flexibility has to come from the ground, space and everything we do,” said Airbus’ Nasr. 

DeMauro said Northrop Grumman is providing ground infrastructure for the two Space Norway satellites it is building under a contract won in July. Northrop Grumman is using experience building ground control systems for U.S. government missions that required the manufacturer to provide more than just the satellite, he said. 

“To drive efficiencies in the ground system, and the overall system, you need standard interfaces that the industry is going to drive to,” said Chris Johnson, president of Boeing Satellite Systems International, which built the ground segment for Thuraya’s satellites and Mexico’s MexSat system. 

Moving away from both “bespoke” ground systems and hyper specialized satellites is a priority for Boeing, he said. 

Beutelschies cautioned that reprogrammable satellites come with increased cyber risk

“If you have a satellite in orbit that you can reprogram, that means someone else can reprogram it as well,” he said. 

Overall, though, several manufacturers said they view the technology risk with reprogrammable satellites as low, since many have spent years in research and development, while also borrowing from advanced technologies for government programs and high-volume commercial industries like cars and airplanes. 


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Spaceflight Industries says sale of rideshare business a “win-win” for all parties




WASHINGTON — Spaceflight Industries’ decision to sell its rideshare launch services company, Spaceflight, to two Japanese firms will benefit both Spaceflight and its parent company, executives of the two companies say.

Spaceflight Industries announced Feb. 11 that it had an agreement to sell Spaceflight to Japanese companies Mitsui & Co., Ltd. and Yamasa Co., Ltd., who will own it in a 50/50 joint venture. Spaceflight will continue to operate as a U.S.-based company, while Spaceflight Industries will focus its attention on BlackSky, its geospatial intelligence business.

The companies did not disclose the value of the deal, and Brian O’Toole, president of Spaceflight Industries and chief executive of BlackSky, declined to discuss terms of the sale in a Feb. 14 interview. However, he said the proceeds of the deal will go towards accelerating the deployment of the BlackSky’s satellite constellation.

“This is going to provide us an opportunity to potentially get those satellites up on orbit faster and accelerate a lot of our platform investment,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of demand right now and our customers are interested in us going faster.”

BlackSky has four satellites in orbit now and plans to launch eight more later this year. Those are part of a group of 20 satellites under production at LeoStella, Spaceflight Industries’ joint venture with Thales Alenia Space to manufacture smallsats. O’Toole said the rest of that set of 20 satellites should be in orbit by early 2021.

Imagery from those satellites, as well as other data sources, feed into a platform that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to provide specific information for both government and commercial customers. “It’s really about moving away from delivering just pixels to delivering insights,” he said. “This capital will allow us to accelerate that for our customers.”

One reason Spaceflight Industries decided to sell Spaceflight, he said, was that the company had already been working with Mitsui, who invested in Spaceflight Industries. “Mitsui has been a partner for us for a while and they had a long-term interest of getting more into space,” he said. “We’re seeing pretty large market opportunities for both businesses and I need to get each business resourced and focused on their opportunities.”

Spaceflight Industries decided to sell Spaceflight rather than raise more capital and keep the company along with BlackSky. “We are continuing to raise capital. Fundamentally, it’s about where do you deploy that capital,” he said. “These are very different businesses, so this path just made sense for both.”

In a separate interview Feb. 13, Curt Blake, president and chief executive of Spaceflight, agreed that the sale would help his business. “From our standpoint, it definitely gives us a lot more financial strength,” he said. “There’s a lot that we can get out and do that we had on our radar that we’ve been unable to tackle.”

He said the company isn’t ready yet to disclose many of those plans, but one area of growth will be to expand Spaceflight’s portfolio of services. “You can extend the services that you provide beyond launch as the end game, to other pieces,” he said. “That can include all kinds of different alliances or potentially even acquisitions.”

Spaceflight’s Japanese owners, he added, should help it win additional business in Japan and elsewhere in Asia, and offer closer ties with Japanese launch providers. “Both of those are interesting, and ways we can solidify our position in Asia,” he said.

While owned by Japanese companies, Spaceflight will remain based in the U.S. and will structure itself to allow it to do business as it has, including putting protections in place on export sensitive information.

“We’re really excited. Strong financial backing really opens up a whole multitude of possibilities for us,” he said. “We have to do the foreign national protections, but that’s a small price to pay for having this kind of opportunity available to us.”

O’Toole said he saw the sale as a “win-win” for both Spaceflight and BlackSky, and added that the two companies will work together even after the sale closes. “We will continue to have a very close working relationship with the Spaceflight launch services group,” he said. “They are going to remain our primary launch provider, and we are actively working with them to explore options with the entire launch market to accelerate our constellation.”


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Here are the Chinese industries likely to be hit hardest by coronavirus




A man cycles past a closed Apple store in Beijing on February 8, 2020.

Greg Baker | AFP | Getty Images

The extended shutdown in China due to the coronavirus outbreak brought the economic giant to a virtual standstill, as factories struggle to get back on their feet and consumers stop traveling, shopping or eating out.

Progress on the return to work has been slow, analysts say. Even after workers come back they must follow quarantine orders, limiting production at factories.

“Controls in place to stem the spread of the virus have halted the movement of people, brought business activity to a standstill and closed offices up and down the country,” ratings giant S&P Global said in a report on Wednesday.

The outbreak, it said, will cause a short-term blow to consumption, an increasingly vital part of the country’s growth, and that will have a knock-on effect on other sectors, the S&P Global report said.

This is how the fallout from the outbreak will affect various sectors in China, according to reports from S&P Global and Morgan Stanley this week.

Restaurants, retail and leisure

The restaurant sector in China will see a “significant” fall in first-quarter sales, S&P Global said. The firm projected those figures will only be around 45% to 55% of sales revenue during the same period last year.

“The coronavirus outbreak coincided with this year’s Spring Festival. After the city of Wuhan was effectively sealed off and quarantined on January 23, restaurants all over the country closed their shutters for the Chinese New Year,” it said.

As a large number of people remain stuck at home, the situation has even forced bars to deliver happy hour drink orders.

Morgan Stanley added that the two-week shutdown of casinos in Macao will cost operators. It could result in a decline of more than 50% in first-quarter earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization for the sector — a measure of a company’s operating performance.


Tourism revenue for the first half of the year will suffer a “severe blow,” affecting overall performance for whole year, S&P Global said, even if the epidemic is under control by March.

The outbreak coincided with the Lunar New Year holiday season — a peak travel period that S&P Global notes made up 16% of tourism revenue for the first half of 2019.

“These areas have proved particularly vulnerable during this outbreak and highlight the weaknesses in the revenue structure of domestic tourism,” the report said. “Most tourism destinations, hotels, resorts and theme parks have been temporarily closed.”

Real estate

As compared to the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic, the new coronavirus outbreak will have a “more severe impact” on the property sector, said S&P Global.

Sales growth in third- and fourth-tier cities will likely not recover this year, its report said.

“This is because of a halt in demand from migrant workers, who traditionally return to their hometowns during Spring Festival, and typically use the period to buy property,” it said.

The long-term impact on commercial property, such as office buildings and malls, also shouldn’t be underestimated, S&P Global said.

“It will take a long time to recover foot traffic in shopping malls. More importantly, the virus has encouraged Chinese firms to attempt large-scale shifts towards online operations, further increasing the reach of e-commerce to new consumers,” it said.

According to Morgan Stanley, over 50 Chinese cities shut down property sale sites, or suspended marketing events as well as on-site construction.


Cinemas have already suffered a “clear blow,” and the sharp losses at the box offices over the Spring Festival will be “difficult to fully turn around,” the S&P Global report said.

The virus had come during one of the biggest sales seasons of the year for China’s movie theaters. Seven films scheduled for release during the Chinese New Year season were pulled, costing 1.4 billion yuan ($210 million) in losses at the box office. Most theaters also shut down for two weeks.


While people are shopping online more as they stop going out, those companies could also be temporarily hit.

Morgan Stanley pointed out that the logistic disruptions are affecting deliveries, and is a near-term negative for Chinese e-commerce players. Shutdowns throughout China means roads and highways have been closed.

Alibaba last week warned that virus-related disruptions may hit its revenue growth in the March quarter. Its CEO Daniel Zhang said that the delay in employees returning to work is preventing merchants and logistic companies from resuming operations.


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