These Are The Five Hardest Things About Launching A Commercial Satellite


On Tuesday this week the Australian Government unveiled the country’s first space policy, with the use of satellite technology getting a push as a national priority.

In February NewSat — a listed company — announced the successful placement of the equity and mezzanine funding for the country’s first commercial Ka-band satellite, the Jabiru-1.

As Australia’s largest pure-play satellite communications company, NewSat delivers internet, voice, data and video communications.

The company’s chief technology officer David Ball told Business Insider about the five biggest challenges that someone who wants to launch their own satellite into space faces.

1. Securing an orbital position for your satellite.

There’s good money in Satellites, and the people who’ll pay you to use them (think The US Department of Defence) have got deep pockets. But before you get too ahead of yourself, you need to make sure there’s an orbital position free.

This is “your parking lot in space,” Ball said, “You have to make sure you are a certain distance away from your [satellite] neighbours.”

Given that the earth’s equator runs 360 degrees, “there are a limited number of spots,” he explained.

2. Understanding what your customers want

Just because you’re an ‘out of this world’ business, doesn’t mean you don’t have to do market research. Ball said that a lot of work goes into understanding the services that customers — big corporates and government organisations — will require, and making sure that the satellite that is then designed can handle these needs.

3. Designing your satellite

Here’s the hard part. You need to make the thing. And the actual structure isn’t necessarily the most difficult stage: there’s a whole host of internal designing and modification that needs to happen to make sure that the satellite works. Remember, it’s never coming back to earth for a tune-up.

4. Finance

Someone’s got to pay for it.

“We have leveraged export credit agencies to assist with debt funding.

“We didn’t want to dilute value for existing shareholders.”

For NewSat’s satellite, which will be launched in 2014, US$611 million of funding was secured from the Export-Import Bank of the United States, COFACE and other global institutional investors.

The Export-Import Bank of the United States finances projects that will help boost the US economy or create US jobs.

Institutions such as Ex-Im Bank and COFACE, a credit insurer acting on behalf of the French Government, provide “nice, low interest rate credit,” in return for intensive due-diligence, Ball said.

The credit insurance from COFACE will be used to back loans against the rocket that will launch the satellite, built by French company Arianespace.

“Because of the due-diligence for the debt funding from the United States and France, other investors think that, if they looked at it [the project] then it must be all good.”

5. Getting the thing into orbit

Once the funding is secured and the satellite is ready to go up, it has to be launched – which is the riskiest stage.

“We have resident engineers at Lockheed Martin. They have been involved in building multiple Lockheed satellites.

“Day-to-day [in this phase] it’s just a question of checking all the parts, and making sure that all the procedures were followed correctly.

“It’s all about risk management.”

While there will be a loot of nervous people watching the satellite being shot into space, the team being used has conducted 54 flawless launches in a row, an “unparalleled” record.

But mistakes do happen, with a crash or some sort of malfunction that renders the satellite useless definitely on the cards. “It is possible. The Russian’s have had a difficult time of late.”

“But we neutralise a lot of that risk.”

Luckily, it’s all insured though. and there is a lot of “redundancy” built into the satellite.

“You can’t send a repair man out there. There are people looking at ways to possibly service them, but today that’s not going to happen.

“That’s why you put in so much focus on the ground.”

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