On 11 March 2016 in SES in Luxembourg agreement between SES, OHB and ESA was signed. It seems that program of developing new European telecommunication satellite with electric propulsion is reaching the positive end.
Electra program was established in 2013 as initiative of European Space Agency under ARTES-33 plan for supporting innovative solutions by ESA cooperation with chosen private companies. Electra main objective was to create new generation of satellites with participation of European space industry. Program was focused on accelerating of developing alternative, electric based, propulsion technology which could be implemented in both commercial and non-commercial satellites manufactured in Europe. Program was started as public-private cooperation between ESA and SES, large private telecommunication company based in Luxembourg. Due the long and successful cooperation between SES and OHB, this German company also was involved into Electra program along with DLR (German Space Agency) which was one of the sponsors of program. Objectives were ambitious - first milestone was planned for 2014. It was choosing commercial mission, which could test potential of new electric powered satellite. Next milestone was scheduled for 2018 when first mission of new satellite would start. It gave only few years for developing satellite platform with full electric propulsion, with the ESA assumption that new propulsion should reduce start weight of satellite for about 40% (and of course help in increasing payload capacity). Whole program is strong support for German space industry, which should bring positive results for whole Europe. Such assumption was presented in 2013 by Director General of ESA Jean-Jacques Dordain:
“Electra represents three partnerships in one: between SES and OHB, to develop the best solution for SES and the future needs of other satellite operators; between SES and ESA, to offer the best possible validation in orbit of a new technology; and between ESA and DLR to capitalize on previous investments. These three partnerships is the best way to optimize the use of public and private funds for enhancing the competitiveness of the European sector."
Platform preliminary design was started on 17 December 2014 and in 2015 OHB chose their SmallGEO satellite platform (SGEO) to integrate with new propulsion. It is platform for small communication satellites offering 300 kg payload capacity with 3 kW of power and estimated operational life of 15 years. SGEO was also chosen for first EDRS satellite (European Data Relay System based on Eutelsat owned satellites). OHB started integrating new propulsion into SGEO and was continuing this work during 2015.
Yesterday, on 11 March 2016 following representatives of ESA, SES and OHB signed agreement: Karim Sabbagh (President and CEO of SES), Marco Fuchs (CEO of OHB), Jan Woerner (Director General of ESA) and Magali Vaissiere (Director of Telecommunications and Integrated Applications in ESA). Agreement covers important detail - first mission with utilization of new satellite platform is planned for 2021, what means that program is delayed for three years comparing to original schedule.
Electra is one of the latest ESA programs which are objected on stimulating developing new technologies to shorten distance between Europe and USA. Just like EDRS (read more here), which will be commercialized by Eutelsat, SGEO with electric propulsion will be surely valuable gift for OHB and SES from ESA. Let's put trust in ESA, that unlike EDRS it won't be gift only for these two companies.