Geosynchronous Satellites

Photographs & Text by Toby Smith

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Over 6,600 satellites have been launched into space since Sputnik in 1957. Of those, 3,600 are still in orbit around Earth and launch frequencies are ever increasing to satisfy our global thirst for more communication, data and broadcast channels. In 2012, I began a long-term partnership with SES to document some of the world’s most advanced commercial satellites from their design, construction and testing through to international transportation, space launch and operations.

SES-6 weighs over 6 tonnes and is currently orbiting above Latin America and the Caribbean where it will relay broadcast and data networks for 15 years. The story behind this satellite represents a heady and absolute cooperation across a surprising set of nations; all pushing the boundaries of science, design and engineering.

This satellite was designed and constructed by a French space technology group called Airbus Defence and Space (formerly Astrium), funded by a Luxembourgian satellite operator offering bandwidth to Latin America. It was delivered to Kazakhstan by the world’s largest cargo jet operated from the Ukraine. Its chosen launch vehicle is a heavily modified version of a ballistic missile operated by a Russian-American space cooperation. The Proton Rocket successfully launched from Baikonor Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, a mysterious area of land leased by the Russian Government since the 1950’s. The Proton Rocket was originally designed to deliver nuclear bombs onto the Eastern Seaboard of the US Mainland but now finds itself operated in the first US-Russian partnership to stem from the cold war.

However, Proton, which has launched over 200 satellites since 1965, was once renowned for its space superiority. Today, it is challenged with launch failures and is struggling to maintain its yearly-target of satellite launches.

SES-6 is just one satellite narrative touching some of the secretive and diverse players in the commercial satellite and launch industry. Space X, a new player on the launch scene, is threatening to reduce prices, improve environmental credentials, increase scalability and rock the existing market. Elon Musk has ambition to travel to Mars but also dominate the commercial launch industry with his modular Falcon 9 launch system.

Falcon-9 is heading towards being a re-usable space-craft, the first of its kind, and is 100% designed and built in the US. Refilling the vacuum at Cape Canaveral left by the Shuttle Program required a heady mix of approval from the US Government and investors. Without the track-record of existing providers SES took a gamble launching SES-8 with them in December 2013. After a number of technical delays the Falcon 9 successfully launched the satellite into a geostationary orbit over Asia. As the first of its kind the launch was heavily discounted to USD $60million dollars. The satellite itself was built by Orbital Sciences of Maryland and with an efficient application of its precious fuel reserves should operate over Asia.

The successful and relatively cheap launch of SES-8 by Space-X certainly gives the European Space Agency cause for concern. From French Guiana they operate the world's reference for heavy-lift launchers. Ariane 5 can carry payloads weighing more than 10 metric tons to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) and over 20 metric tons into low-Earth orbit (LEO). With satellite weight decreasing and cost being an important factor many industry critics argue that Ariane 5 is too costly and too heavy to remain commercial competitive. What cannot be argued is its incredible reliability and track record of 71 successful launches and 57 in a row.

Ariane 5 has a strong track record of successful launches compared to the recent poor reliability of Proton, and SpaceX being new have yet to prove a track record, their arrival nonetheless shook up the market and grabbed headlines. Currently, Ariane also have a long/full waiting list, whereas SpaceX has availability, and offers a huge cost saving.

The European Space Agency knew this was coming, and have recently finally (after 2 years of discussion) announced that they have secured the funds needed to move forward with the development of an Ariane 6 rocket, in a bid to rival SpaceX. It will be loosely based on the current model, but embracing new technology to bring the cost down compared to their current model.

(To read related BBC News article click here)

"It's a success - I even dare to call it a big success," said Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA's director-general, explaining that nations had pledged EUR €5.924bn Euro (USD $7.4billion) for operations in the coming years. He praised member states for making "an exceptional effort... because we know what the economic situation is."

Europe’s two biggest space powers, France and Germany, had been discussing a number of differences on the matter, but have finally reached consensus, and a budget of EUR €5.924bn Euro has now been committed by ESA member states (largely France & Germany) to a number of projects over the coming years, with roughly EUR €4bn Euro of that going towards Ariane 6, which they plan to have ready by 2020.

Its incredible capability was witnessed in French Guiana on the 22 March this year. Launching two satellites simultaneously and flawlessly to geostationary altitudes. The incredible force is created by a heady combination of engine and fuel types. Ariane 5’s cryogenic H158 main stage is called the EPC (Étage Principal Cryotechnique - Cryotechnic Main Stage). It consists of a large tank 30.5 metres high with two compartments, one for 130 tonnes of liquid oxygen and one for 25 tonnes of liquid hydrogen, and a Vulcain engine at the base with thrust of 115 tonnes-force (1.13 meganewtons). Attached to the sides are two solid rocket boosters, each weighing about 277 tonnes when full. Each delivers a thrust of about 630 tonnes-force. These SRBs are usually allowed to sink to the bottom of the ocean, but in March 2000 the nose cone of an Ariane 5 booster washed ashore on the South Texas coast, and was recovered by beachcombers.

The French Guiana space centre can handle up to 5 Ariane launches per year in parallel with its Vega and new Soyuz program. The space centre is sprawling collection of enormous facilities dedicated to satellite, launcher and fuel preparation. The Spaceport – also known as the Guiana Space Centre – is a strategically-located facility that provides optimum operating conditions for Arianespace's commercial launches. Situated in French Guiana, the Spaceport's location close to the equator at 5.3 degrees North latitude makes it ideally-situated for missions into geostationary orbit. Launching near the equator reduces the energy required for insertions into space. This saves fuel, enabling an increased operational lifetime for Ariane satellite payloads – and, in turn, an improved return on investment for the spacecraft operators.

In a new burst of energy and with billions of Euro placed on the table, Europe and the U.S. are entering into a new race to access space. This race will only see winners since the demand for satellite capacity is set to grow exponentially. For only through satellite, can the connectivity hunger experienced by millions of people worldwide and the vast appetite for data by technology giants Google and Facebook be met.

SES’s fleet of satellites covers much of the earth’s surface but they are principally controlled and coordinated from a single site in rural Luxembourg. A view across the antenna field shows a huge collection of antenna that controls communication satellites above the Northen Hemisphere. This site is the largest satellite uplink station in the world. Each dish connects to single satellite by microwave frequency and must track it accurately. The antenna both handles the control signals but also relays the huge amount of broadcast and telephone data that is relayed by the satellites to its specific territory. A highly sophisticated system monitors the incoming and outgoing HD video feeds to ensure high quality across the channels.

This feature was shot in 2013-2013.

Full edit of 139 images available on request.