Satellites have an electric future

Ion thruster Thrust comes from a stream of charged atoms (ions) accelerated to very high velocities

One of the most interesting trends in satellite production in the next few years is likely to be the wide introduction of electric propulsion (EP).

More and more satellites will be launched not with chemical thrusters to manoeuvre them in space but with ion propulsion units.

We've seen electric engines fitted to scientific spacecraft in recent years, but not so much on commercial satellites.

Boeing has charged out of the box on this one, agreeing to build four "all electric" telecommunications spacecraft for Asian and Mexican operators.

The attraction is mass - or rather, lack of it.

Chemical thrusters require large tanks of propellant; electric engines, while they don't provide quite the same initial boost, do not need anything like the same volumes of fuel and can work for much longer.

The downside is that it takes you longer to put a satellite in its final orbital slot; the big plus, however, is that you get a much lighter satellite.

That weight saving can either be given over to more payload (transponders in the case of telecommunications satellites), or allow the satellite to squeeze on to a smaller, cheaper rocket.

The latter strategy is the one now being looked at seriously for the future of Galileo, Europe's new satellite navigation system.

It needs 30 spacecraft in orbit to operate a full network (with spares); and because Galileo will be an on-going service, there will be an on-going requirement for replacement satellites.

Galileo satellite A Galileo satellite can be produced now for a unit price of about 30m euros

Galileo, as we all know, is a hugely expensive project, costing billions of euros.

Part of that cost comes down to the price of the rockets used to get the platforms into the sky. If that could be tackled, our taxes would go further.

Currently, Galileo satellites are launched two at a time on a Russian Soyuz rocket.

It costs roughly as much to launch those two satellites as it does to build them. So, if you could get a third satellite aboard, you'd suddenly jump to a new cost regime.


Galileo constellation (Esa)
  • Galileo is owned by the EU but is being procured by the European Space Agency
  • Some 30 satellites are likely to be launched in batches in the coming years
  • Galileo will work alongside the US GPS and the Russian Glonass sat-nav systems
  • Europe's full system promises real-time positioning down to a metre or less
  • It should deepen and extend high-value markets already initiated by GPS
  • Some say economies are over-reliant on GPS; Galileo ought to make sat-nav more robust

This week, at the Farnborough International Airshow, the two companies making Europe's Galileo spacecraft put pen to paper on their contractual relationship.

OHB System of Bremen, Germany, and Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) from Guildford, UK, can now turn out a Galileo satellite for about 30m euros.

That has come down from roughly 40m euros per spacecraft when they were first engaged to do the job by the European Commission and the European Space Agency.

But getting the cost down much further is really a launch issue, and electric propulsion could be the solution.

"It is feasible to take Galileo satellites up with electric propulsion, if the technology is available and mature enough," commented OHB's Ingo Engeln.

"You need more time to get the satellites in place, of course, but for the next generation this should be no problem."

And Giuliano Gatti, who works on the Galileo project for Esa, added: "It would mean you could get one satellite on Vega, three on Soyuz and up to six on the Ariane 5."

Europe has a lot of experience already in ion engines.

The concept is simple enough. Strip the electrons off a stream of xenon gas atoms so that they become charged (ions). Then put those ions in a magnetic field and accelerate them to extremely highly velocities in one direction to provide thrust for your satellite in the opposite direction.

You may be aware of Goce, the European Space Agency's gravity mapping satellite. This flies so low to make its maps that it must continually fire its ion engine to counteract the wisps of atmosphere still present at an altitude of 260km.

It was launched in 2009 with just a 40kg tank of xenon and is still working.

Goce satellite Gravity mapper Goce has been firing its electric engine non stop since 2009

Of course the penalty is that ion engines put you in the slow lane.

Chemical thrusters might not burn as long, but they give you great initial acceleration and a satellite can be ejected from its rocket and be ready for use in its correct position in the sky in a matter of weeks.

With electric propulsion, it would take months.

"Where the EP variant will come into its own is in the future, once the Galileo system is in place and you have to consider replenishment, perhaps of single spacecraft," commented John Paffett.

"At the moment, Soyuz and Ariane are quite efficient ways of populating a constellation; but what if you have a single spacecraft failure?

"It makes no sense to put an additional four or six spacecraft into an orbital plane. So the question then becomes: how cheaply can you acquire a small launch vehicle, drop a satellite off in any arbitrary orbit and have EP do the transfer from there?"

The contract signed between OHB System and SSTL brings another 80m euros' worth of work to the Guildford company.

OHB also signed a contract with Culham's ABSL at the show. The British company will be providing the batteries that go into Galileo satellites.

Jonathan Amos Article written by Jonathan Amos Jonathan Amos Science correspondent

Sentinel-2: Europe's 'Landsat' ready to picture Planet Earth

The "workhorse" satellite in Europe's new multi-billion-euro Earth observation programme is built and ready to go into orbit.

Read full article

More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    #111 Drunken Hobo
    "A nuclear reactor in space would be interesting!"

    The materials to build one and the fissiles to run it would be minable on almost any nickel-iron asteroid.

    It would have to be built in space. NERVA finally foundered on the risk of launching large amounts of nuclear material by rocket.

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    94 sporpo - The Stirling engine is such a beautifully elegant design, I'm surprised it's taken us as long to put it to use. However, I think using spontaneous fission rather than an induced nuclear reaction means it will only produce a watts rather than the kilowatts needed for an ion engine, and will likely be used to power instrumentation instead.
    A nuclear reactor in space would be interesting!

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    #108 Jonathon Amos

    I really hope VASIMIR is viable technology. Our current combustion based rocket technology is not really up to the job of turning a barely explored solar system into a solar civilization., or of herding asteroids as Planetary Resources and Spaceguard may require.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    95 Philip Iszatt - The life expectancy since 1900 has doubled, also thanks to science.
    98 - If you wish to go for the "wonder" angle, is it not more wondrous to know that all we see around us is due to just 4 fundamental forces acting within matter? Compared to that, a god controlling everything is somewhat… tedious.
    If the universe would look the same with a god, then what exactly does he do?

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    @Entropic man. Ad Astra's work is very interesting. I've written about it here: because the Texas company has been making good use of some excellent British technology. Also here:


Comments 5 of 112


Features & Analysis

BBC Future

A helicopter casts a shadow over the chasm in Guatemala (Getty Images)

When the Earth swallows people

What should we do to avoid sinkholes?


  • A robot holding a table legClick Watch

    The robots who build flat-pack furniture - teaching machines to work collaboratively

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.