The decision by SES to launch a medium-size geostationary communications satellite on a Space Exploration Technologies Inc. (SpaceX) Falcon 9 rocket marks another effort by satellite operators to add to their bottom lines by taking a tight-fisted approach to the prices they pay for launch services.

Luxembourg-based SES has also entered a “framework understanding” with Sea Launch as the latter emerges from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection that could see the ocean-going Sea Launch Odyssey again lofting SES spacecraft from the equatorial Pacific Ocean someday.

“We have always considered the launch vehicle system provided by Sea Launch to be an important participant in the commercial arena of heavy-lift launch providers,” says SES CEO Romain Bausch. “Given our desire for a vibrant and competitive launch service market, we are pleased to see a new Sea Launch emerging and re-engaging.”

Meeting reporters at the Satellite 2011 conference here last week Bausch repeated earlier calls for “diversity” in the satellite-launch market to help hold down the cost of service. In addition to assigning SpaceX what could be the startup’s first mission to geostationary transfer orbit, Bausch also suggested that satellite electric propulsion—previously used for station-keeping in orbit—could be added to the launch-cost equation.

“You don’t need to have these large launch vehicles to launch mid-size satellites, but you can do it more efficiently by using smaller launch vehicles and combining the capabilities of these launch vehicles with electric propulsion,” Bausch says, explaining that low-thrust ion propulsion systems could gradually raise a spacecraft to its orbit above the equator.

That approach would take more time, but in large fleets like the 44-satellite SES operation there is enough existing capacity to plan for it and hold down launch costs. With Intelsat putting down serious money to extend the life of its satellites already on orbit by refueling them there (see p. 23), the market for launching commercial geostationary birds may be shrinking below the 22 or so a year expected for the next few years.

At the same time, competition is stiffening. In addition to Sea Launch’s return to the fray, SpaceX is eager to join in with the Falcon 9 it has developed to deliver cargo and eventually crew to the International Space Station (see p. 18).

“Falcon 9 ideally complements our roster of Ariane 5 and Proton boosters, as well as our framework launch understanding with Sea Launch,” Bausch says, adding that SES engineers conducted “extensive due diligence” before deciding to put the SES-8 spacecraft on the new rocket.

Under construction at Orbital Sciences Corp., SES-8 is scheduled to launch in the first quarter of 2013 to the orbital slot at 95 deg. East Long., where it will be co-located with the NSS-6 satellite to support growing demand for direct-to-home broadcast TV delivery in South Asia and Southeast Asia, as well as customers in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Australia, Papua New Guinea and Korea.

As part of its deal with SpaceX, SES is requiring that the launch company demonstrate a new fairing that will fit its satellite, and to fly at least once with uprated Merlin engines that will meet its requirements.

Gwynne Shotwell, president of the Hawthorne, Calif.-based launch provider, says the modified engines will generate 125,000-135,000 lb. thrust, up from 115,000 lb. for the original. Changes in the design that also eliminate the need for off-site plating services contributed to the boost in engine performance, she says. The in-house approach is one way SpaceX is working to hold down its costs and pass savings along to customers, Shotwell adds, noting that the company has started spinning its own tank domes in-house this month.

Bausch says the SES-8 satellite will be too big to launch on a Russian Soyuz rocket flying from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, where the 51.6 deg. N. Lat. reduces launcher efficiency. But the Falcon 9 will get some competition from that quarter for geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) launches later this year, when the Franco-Russian Starsem partnership begins flying the Soyuz from Europe’s Guiana Space Center.

Soyuz can use the geographic advantage of the northern coast of South America, at 4 deg. N. Lat., to lift 2.8 metric tons to GTO instead of 1.7 tons at Baikonur. In 2011 the European center near Kourou, French Guiana, will see its first Soyuz launch and the first launch of the smaller Vega vehicle, according to Jean-Yves Le Gall, chairman and CEO of Arianespace.

Vega, which can put satellites as large as 2 metric tons into polar and low Earth orbits, is to be used for scientific missions. Arianespace will continue to use its Ariane 5 to joust with International Launch Services’ Protons for orders to launch large commercial communications satellites to GEO, but Le Gall says he isn’t worried about competition from SpaceX yet.

“We already have behind us four satellites which are now in our order book which were previously manifested with SpaceX,” he says.

Still, the market for launching large spacecraft is growing more competitive as Sea Launch gets back in business. Kjell Karlsen, president of Sea Launch, says it will take until 2013 for his company to return to full speed of five launches per year, with two this year and three in 2012. Success getting through bankruptcy is more evidence the operators are looking for diversity in the ways they get their spacecraft to orbit, he says.