Eutelsat 172B satellite reaches orbit on electric propulsion
The Eutelsat 172B is the first telecom satellite to have reached working orbit entirely on electric propulsion. The satellite was built by Airbus for the telecom giant Eutelsat. It broke the current record for the fastest satellite electric orbit raising.
Electric thrusters demonstrated their capability to efficiently and smoothly push a satellite to its intended orbit location. It was noted during these tests four months prior to launch that the electrical propulsion system was able to deliver the payload at roughly six times less fuel as against conventional launch technology.
Jose Gonzalez Del Amo, an electric propulsion specialist for the European Space Agency (ESA) stated in an interview that “Electric propulsion is at least an order of magnitude more efficient than standard chemical propulsion for satellites.” He explained that this propulsion method is effective because by using electrical power stored from solar arrays, a charged propellant is able to generate a higher energy output.
This opens up various possibilities for satellites in the near future. According to Gonzalez del Amo, satellites will be more efficient. Lighter satellites can be launched off of smaller launchers. Alternatively, satellites can be outfitted with a larger revenue-earning payload as the size of propellant tanks will drastically decrease.
The new technology, however, does have its trade-offs. One downside is that the propulsion system requires a much longer time to reach final orbit. This is due to the gradual acceleration caused by low, continuous thrust power provided by electric propulsion. The Eutelsat 172B, while noted as the record breaker for fastest EOR reached working orbit in four months.
The ESA has taken part in various satellite development projects via the Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems (ARTES) program. The program offers support for the development of projects. The level of support provided varies and takes into consideration the levels of commercial maturity a project has. In the case of Eutelsat 172B, the ARTES programme contributed the integration of newly-developed thruster arms which were fully articulated.
Improved variants of the thruster arms and power units used on Eutelsat 172B are to be installed on Eurostar Neo, the next-gen satellite platform being developed by Airbus.