Boeing and SpaceX Fly Together
Getting into space is getting more complex, and a lot cheaper. A recent launch typifies the new power of private rocketry as well as the ability of competitors like SpaceX and Boeing to cooperate to make the price tag of a launch cheaper.
On March 1, SpaceX used its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket to carry two Boeing-built satellites into orbit. Boeing is no stranger to spacecraft or rocketry and owns half (with Lockheed Martin) of United Launch Alliance, which has sent more than 90 satellites successfully into space. On rockets like the Atlas V and the Delta IV.
Not long ago, Boeing or Lockheed or both would have done everything — built the satellite, built the rocket and launched it. But SpaceX came into play because it can launch most things cheaper these days, if not sooner.
Boeing built two very different communications satellites for Eutelsat, headquartered in Paris, and Asia Broadcast Satellite, headquartered in Bermuda and Hong Kong. The satellites use electric xenon-ion engines to fly themselves into geosynchronous orbit from lower Earth orbit and maintain their position there instead of using large amounts of rocket fuel. The engines have very little thrust but can keep a satellite positioned in orbit for 20 years.
Most of the weight of a typical communications satellite is fuel used to keep it in position. Less fuel means more space is available for more transponders and equipment. The results of less fuel are synergistic — less weight and space lowers construction costs and allows use of a smaller, and thus cheaper, rocket. Therefore, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 can be used instead of United Launch’s much more expensive Atlas V.
The Asia Broadcast communications satellite is expected to last 22 years.
Because each of the Boeing-designed satellites weighs about 5,000 pounds, instead of the more typical 8,000 pounds a communications bird weighs, they can piggyback on a single rocket, lowering costs for each company by a staggering $30 million.
The thrust of the ion engines is so small that it takes months instead of weeks for the satellites to fly into their specific positions.
To a bright future,
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