The future of communication satellites appears to be moving toward larger, more powerful models, but satellite manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin will have the challenge of keeping within the capability of current launchers.

The trend is being driven by the cost of launching and insuring satellites, according to Joseph Rickers, Lockheed Martin president for commercial space systems. The substantial cost associated with each launch means customers want to minimize the number of them they do. Having fewer launches means spacecraft that are put into orbit have to be more capable and, consequently, larger.

Osamu Inoue, president of Sky Perfect JSAT Corp.’s space and satellite group, says he sees satellites continuing to grow in size as companies such as his want to host payloads in order to share the cost of buying and launching spacecraft. Inoue says some Sky Perfect satellites host payloads for Japan’s military, which has increasing X-band communications needs with Japanese peace-keeping forces being deployed further afield.

Arianespace Chairman and CEO Jean-Yves Le Gall says it is difficult to predict the extent to which satellites will grow. It depends on the capability of the launch vehicles, he says, adding that manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin may be able to build larger spacecraft, but they will also want to ensure there is competition among launch companies. Manufacturers keep the weight of their satellites to 6.2 tons or less so they have the choice of using either Arianespace or its chief competitor, International Launch Services, Le Gall says.

European governments are now debating whether to fund development of a successor to the Ariane 5 launcher or continue work on a mid-life upgrade.

With all this in mind, Lockheed Martin is developing the AXL, the next generation of its A2100 satellite, that will be even larger than previous models in the commercial satellite family. The AXL is already in Lockheed Martin’s line-up of government and military satellites, but the company is working to bring AXL to the commercial market.

The commercial AXL’s weight will vary depending on the payload, but it will be at least 6 metric tons and, at the upper range, will be approaching 7 metric tons, Rickers says. AXL will be able to carry 70 Ku-band transponders as well as support Ka-band, he says. “Power-wise, it will be in the 15-to-20-kilowatt range,” Rickers says, adding that the challenge of more power is ensuring adequate thermal heat dissipation.

Rickers spoke to Aviation Week while en route to Kourou, French Guiana, to attend the May 15 Ariane 5-ECA launch of Vinasat-2 and JCSat-13, two telecommunications satellites Lockheed Martin built.

Lockheed Martin’s A2100 family of satellites also includes ‘B’ and ‘C’ models. These were developed in the 1990s but have never been launched because there has been no demand for the smaller models.

One challenge Lockheed will face is keeping the commercial AXL cost-competitive while still providing an adequate return on investment from its R&D.

The company has been working on electric propulsion for satellites. The A and AX commercial satellites use chemical propulsion, but Lockheed has used electric propulsion on government satellites. Electric propulsion is lighter, enabling larger communications payloads, though a hurdle is keeping the price point low enough for application to commercial satellites.

Rickers says another key breakthrough is lithium battery technology, but he adds that Lockheed Martin is waiting for more competition among suppliers. Lockheed Martin builds lithium batteries with battery cells from European company Saft. Rickers says Saft has a hold on the market for these cells, but new players are coming and this will lead to decreasing prices.

Lockheed Martin has also developed active-array technology that allows the direction and shape of satellite beams to be changed electronically rather than using mechanical switches, he says. This provides weight savings, as well. Rickers also says he expects antennas on satellites to become smaller in size.

Development of the AXL commercial satellite will be completed within four years, Rickers says. But it will occur in stages and be an evolution, which means customers will see some AXL product features being applied earlier, he adds.