SpaceX’s reusable rockets snag two more launch contracts

Falcon 9 B1021 became the first orbital-class booster to launch and land twice in March 2017. (SpaceX)

SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9 rocket has secured another two launch contracts, this time from longtime customer and prolific satellite communications provider SES.

In 2016, SES acquired satellite operator and communications provider O3B Networks, inheriting a network of 12 O3B satellites that it would later shepherd into a full 20-satellite constellation. Built by contractor Thales Alenia Space, the O3B spacecraft design was ironically quite similar to the Starlink satellites SpaceX would begin to field several years later, weighing around 700 kg (1540 lb) and each offering bandwidth of ~16 gigabits per second (Gbps).

The original O3B constellation was ultimately launched on five separate Russian Soyuz rockets arranged by Arianespace. Now, some 16 months after the final O3B launch, SES’ latest announcement confirms that SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets will launch the entirety of an upgraded constellation called O3B mPower – adding two more launches to the company’s busy manifest.

SpaceX and SES have a long and fruitful history of cooperation. (Teslarati)

Compared to O3B, O3B mPower will be a major upgrade, beating the original medium Earth orbit (MEO; ~8000 km/5000 mi) constellation’s overall bandwidth by at least a factor of 3. SES has yet to reveal much technical detail about each spacecraft but the implication is that the overall constellation – currently expected to be 11 satellites – will add several terabits per second (Tbps) of global communications capacity.

SES (and O3B prior to acquisition) had already ordered seven ~17O3B mPower satellites from Boeing and selected SpaceX for launch services. Now, the company has purchased four more Boeing-built satellites, launch services from SpaceX, and insurance for an eye-watering ~$570 million – more than $140 million apiece. For reference, based on statements made by CEO Elon Musk in the last ~18 months, SpaceX may have built and launched nearly 600 operational Starlink satellites – each offering ~20 Gbps of bandwidth and far lower latency – for roughly the same sum, assuming ~$20 million per Falcon 9 launch, $300,000 per satellite, and at least $150 million for initial development.

A general overview of Starlink’s bus, launch stack and solar array. (SpaceX)

Of course, for the money, SES will be getting a system that can do things SpaceX’s current generation of Starlink satellites can’t really compete with and will focus primarily on in-flight and maritime connectivity markets. Individual O3B mPower antenna beams will reportedly be capable of transmitting “multiple gigabits per second.”

Regardless, the strong, continued relationship between SES and SpaceX is not a huge surprise. SES has flown six times on Falcon 9 rockets and was both SpaceX’s first geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) launch customer in 2013 and the first company in history to launch on a flight-proven rocket booster in 2017. SES’ latest launch contracts ensure that that relationship is guaranteed to continue until 2024.

SpaceX is now scheduled to launch four separate O3B mPower missions, beginning with three three-satellite Falcon 9 launches in Q3 2021, Q1 2022, and H2 2022 and culminating (for now) with a two-satellite launch no earlier than (NET) H2 2024.

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Eric Ralph: Eric Ralph is Teslarati's senior spaceflight reporter and has been covering the industry in some capacity for almost half a decade, largely spurred in 2016 by a trip to Mexico to watch Elon Musk reveal SpaceX's plans for Mars in person. Aside from spreading interest and excitement about spaceflight far and wide, his primary goal is to cover humanity's ongoing efforts to expand beyond Earth to the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere.
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