Transporting Satellites Into Space

September 28th, 2015 - Booming production and deployment of satellites are increasing activity for specialists who can transport and deliver them for launch.

The satellite construction and launch sector has undergone enormous growth in recent years, especially amid rising demand for global telecom and broadcast coverage.

That expansion is slated to accelerate further as recent, revolutionary innovation blasts off.

According to the Washington DC-based Satellite Industry Association, business across the satellite sector rose from $144 billion in 2008 to $195 billion in 2013. Paris-based consulting group Euroconsult estimates an average 115 additional satellites will be launched each year between 2014 and 2023, representing $248 billion in manufacturing revenues alone. 

Opportunities for specialized transport and logistics providers amid that Earth-to-space traffic is also considerable, says Marc Yorann, project director at SDV's Toulouse unit, which coordinates preparation, transportation and delivery of satellites for makers like Airbus Defence and Space or Thales Alenia Space. 

Yorann stresses, however, that bidders for that business must be fully capable of meeting challenges involved. 

"Clients need to know they can rely on partners with lots of experience in the very technical, precise work of transporting satellites," Yorann says, noting scheduling snags of even an hour create serious trouble. "Transporters have to imagine every feasible setback or delay, and prepare detailed contingency plans for those beforehand." 

Such strict demands exist across the entire logistics and transport chain. That means companies moving that giant yet fragile cargo half way around the globe with precision timing must be extremely adaptable. 

"You need a partner who interacts with you a bit like a married couple – fully aware of your needs, knowing how you operate and think, and being there for you when you need them – especially in unexpected, unplanned situations," says Michaël Uhlmann, SLA manager for Airbus Defence and Space. "SDV fills that role extremely well."

SDV provides door-to-door handling of satellites from high-tech manufacturing centers to launch sites ranging from Cape Canaveral, Long Beach, Kourou, Guyana and newer pads in China and India. That can require SDV to use its entire mix of transport and lifting methods.

Transported satellites are stowed in built-to-measure containers up to 15 meters long, five meters wide, and 4.3 meters high, and outfitted with monitors to detect harmful vibration, humidity rate or changes in pressure.

The highly specialized containers – whose internal temperature of 20° C must not fluctuate more than two degrees – are themselves so expensive that they are carefully transported back to satellite production sites empty. Air hauling is done by Antonov 124 planes, one of the few aircraft large enough to accommodate such large containers.

Payload value varies from $100 million to $300 million for commercial telecom or broadcast satellites, to government scientific or military satellites that can cost $1 billion or more. Because of the enormous investments involved, satellite manufacturers work exclusively with proven transport partners, using long-term contracts.

"Price is always a factor, but given the cost of transport and logistics compared to the value of a satellite, choosing a partner is based foremost on quality of service provided and reliability," Uhlmann notes.

"It takes years of hard work and proven excellence to win a contract with satellite clients, but it doesn't take much to lose it," Yorann adds. "Once it's gone, you won't get it back."

Companies in the highly competitive satellite sector are themselves having to become increasingly adaptable and innovative. That requirement will only grow as recent innovations generate revolutionary change.

Miniaturization is shrinking the size and cost of satellites. Yorann says that allows new players to "launch and operate 10, 20, 50 small satellites for $1 million each rather than use one big one for $100 million."

Functionality of those smaller satellites can also be altered over time and changing communication requirements of their owner-users. The individual power of mini-satellites can also be combined by using several together in constellations to cover the globe. That allows companies to create in-house communications, video, GPS or other capabilities previously only available through governments or satellite specialists.

Numerous deep-pocket companies are considering deploying such constellations of small satellites to create their own global communications network. Groups thought to be contemplating such a move include Richard Branson's Virgin, Google and Facebook.

Conversely, O3B is deploying its constellation of mini-satellites to permit infrastructure-poor countries or remote communities to provide rapid Internet access to three billion people who would otherwise be cut off from the web.

Responding to the changes and surges that new activity will bring will present new challenges for companies like SDV. But as Yorann notes, the main factor in the business will remain the same.

"They are still incredibly sophisticated and extremely delicate gems of hi-tech expertise," Yorann says. "Transporting them will still require the same experience, precision and attention to detail that the larger satellites do. And it will require take a specialist to provide that."

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