The Hispasat 36W-1 telecommunications satellite, the first in a new satellite platform called SmallGEO, developed and built in Germany, was launched to space on 28 January 2017 at 02:03 CET (27 January, 22:03 local time). SmallGEO is a platform for relatively light geostationary satellites weighing approximately three tons – instead of the standard six or eight – that orbit Earth at an altitude of 36,000 kilometres.
The platform has a modular design and can be configured and used in various ways – especially for the commercially interesting market of telecommunications services. The first SmallGEO satellite was launched from the European Space Agency (ESA) spaceport in French Guiana on board a Soyuz launcher. The German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft-und Raumfahrt; DLR) supported the development of this 'small' satellite platform with funding from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy: Germany is the largest contributor to ESA's SmallGEO programme and has invested some 150 million euros (42.5 percent of the total budget) in the development of the platform and payload. The main contractor for the satellite is an industrial team headed by OHB System AG in Bremen.
System capability in telecommunications
"After the DFS-Copernicus programme, whose last satellite was launched in the early 1990s, SmallGEO shows that Germany is once again able to develop and build communication satellites," emphasises Gerd Gruppe, Director of DLR Space Administration. He adds: "The mission now under way marks the entry into the market and is an important milestone. "With SmallGEO, Germany is gaining a new system capability. This makes our industry stronger - even in the competitive international market. Furthermore, this is a key objective of Germany's space strategy."
German expertise for the payload
Hispasat 36W-1 will provide Spain, the Canary Islands and South America with multimedia services. The German company Tesat Spacecom from Backnang designed and built its first complete communications payload for this mission. Part of this payload is the Ka-Band Demonstrator, a communications unit with a particularly wide range of frequencies. This payload unit includes a new control unit and three power amplifiers. Both technologies are being tested in space and are intended to make satellite communications more flexible. Until now, telecommunications satellites have been relatively inflexible: once launched into space, they transmit in the same frequency range and at a fixed power for their entire service life of about 15 years. "This is no longer viable these days and does not meet market demands. A flexible power amplifier can, if necessary, increase or decrease the intensity. This saves power, which is then available for other applications," explains DLR Programme Manager Frank Bensch.
The first weeks
During the first 10 days after the launch – the so-called 'Launch and Early Orbit Phase' – the engineers and scientists at the German Space Operations Center (GSOC) (GSOC) at the DLR site in Oberpfaffenhofen and at the ground station in Weilheim are responsible for the navigation and control of the satellite. "In the first phase, we intensively test the operation of the satellite platform and bring the satellites into their geostationary orbit. This is followed by in-orbit tests, which mainly include payload tests with the transponders and antennas. A few weeks later, the satellite is handed over to the control centre of the Spanish satellite operator Hispasat near Madrid,” explains Thomas Kuch, Head of Mission Operations at GSOC.
Looking into the future
Frank Bensch, SmallGEO programme manager at the DLR Space Administration, adds: "Hispasat 36W-1 is the start of our own product line." For example, the European Meteosat Third Generation weather satellites currently being built are based on SmallGEO. In the EDRS-C follow-up mission – scheduled for launch in the autumn of 2017 – the SmallGEO platform will be expanded with a purely chemically powered variant. EDRS-C will be part of the European Data Relay System (EDRS), a data highway in space, which started operating in 2016 with its first EDRS-A satellite. The SmallGEO platform is also preparing the German Heinrich Hertz satellite mission, with the launch scheduled for 2020. A platform variant with a fully electric drive is being developed for the Electra mission, which is planned for 2022. As a result, the payload can be nearly doubled for the same satellite mass.
SmallGEO – Programme and participants
SmallGEO is part of a European Space Agency (ESA) development programme for telecommunications systems. The main contractor for the satellites is OHB System AG in Bremen. In addition, the Spanish satellite operator Hispasat is ESA's partner in the SmallGEO programme and the first satellite customer. The main contractor for the payload is Tesat-Spacecom GmbH and Co. KG from Backnang. The star trackers are supplied by Jena-Optronik GmbH. A total of 12 ESA Member States are involved in the programme. In addition to Germany, the main contributors are Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Italy. Germany is the programme leader with 42.5 percent. In addition to the system and payload expertise, Germany can build on a strong supplier base. With the solar cells provided by Azur and the solar array by Airbus Defense and Space, large parts of the power supply come from Heilbronn and Ottobrunn. The xenon tanks were supplied by MT Aeropace in Augsburg and the fuel tanks by Airbus Safran Launchers in Bremen. Other suppliers are Airbus DS in Friedrichshafen, Airbus Safran Launchers in Lampoldshausen, Jena Optronik and Rockwell Collins in Heidelberg. The satellite tests were carried out at IABG and Airbus DS, both based in Ottobrunn.