The launch of two new communications satellites may not seem like news these days, but it is when they're the first satellites with all-electric propulsion. Boeing announced that the two 702SP small platform satellites, called ABS-3A and EUTELSAT 115 West B, that launched on Sunday evening are sending back signals to mission control as they power towards geosynchronous orbit under ion drive.
According to Boeing, the 702SPs were developed in less than three years and are designed for light weight and affordability. ABS-3A, which belongs to Bermuda-based ABS, will be stationed at 3° West longitude and will provide communications to the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. EUTELSAT 115 West B under EUTELSAT headquartered in Paris will sit at 114.9° West longitude and provide data services to Latin America, Canada, and Alaska.
The key technology of the two new geosynchronous comsats is their Xenon Ion Propulsion System (XIPS). Hybrid systems that use a mix of chemical and ion propellants have been sent into orbit before, but this is the first time satellites have been deployed with an all-electric drive.
Boeing says that the technology is based on 210,000 hours of ion propulsion flight experience and is 10 times more efficient than liquid-fueled rockets. Four 25-cm (9.8-in) thrusters using xenon as a propellant allow the 702SP satellites to maintain stationkeeping while using only 5 kg (11 lb) of fuel per year, which is a great saving because the satellites need less fuel and smaller thrusters, which reduces launch costs.
The satellites were launched on March 1 at 10:50 pm EST from SpaceX’s Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. SpaceX says that it was the company's most voluminous payload yet. The pair were launched as a conjoined stack atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket using Boeing technology to reduce costs.
Unlike other recent Falcon 9 launches, this one did not see the booster try for a controlled powered landing attempt. Shortly before Sunday's lift off, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk explained in a tweet that no attempt would be made to land the Falcon 9 booster because the supersynchronous trajectory wouldn't leave enough surplus propellant for the maneuver. "Next landing attempt will be 3rd from now," said Musk. "Tonight's flight and following one will not have enough propellant."