Boeing Eyes Small Sat Market With "Phantom Phoenix"

by Amy Hillis
Apr 09, 2013

Could Boeing make inroads into the small satellite market niche of Orbital and Ball?

Seems the company is optimistic. It is developing a family of three small satellites – from 4-1,000 kilograms in size – to whet the growing appetite of commercial and government customers interested in pursuing lower cost space platforms.

This small satellite market is one that is “coming of age,” potentially worth in the billions over the next 10 years, says Alex Lopez, vice president of advanced network and space systems at Boeing. The company has yet to get a committed customer but has been briefing the government and commercial operators.

The company unveiled the concept, developed by its Phantom Works advanced development arm, April 8 on the eve of the 29th National Space Symposium here. Called Phantom Phoenix, the platform options will share a common architecture and flight software, potentially cutting down on unique research and development costs for customers. In the past, each Air Force satellite program required dedicated software, a large development cost for uniquely designed or modified busses.

Boeing officials are also boasting that the designs will simplify integration work for missions including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for government customers to civil planetary science.

“Building upon the success Boeing has had with out 702 satellite family, we’ve rapidly a line of satellites to address the market between large geosynchronous spacecraft and nanosatellites,” says Darryl Davis, president of Boeing Phantom Works.

The three designs are as follow: Phantom Phoenix (500-1,000 kg. designed for single and dual launch); Phantom Phoenix EELV Secondary Payload Adaptor (180-kg. class spacecraft designed to mate with the ESPA ring capable of carrying up to six satellites on an Atlas V or Delta IV Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle); and Phantom Phoenix Nano (a 4-10 kg. class spaceraft optimized for space and weather missions.

Though prototype work is under way for each of these satellite classes, much of the focus is in reducing risk in common software and avionics. “It is less about the structure and more about being able too plug and play for the mission,” says Bruce Chesley, director of advanced space and intelligence systems. “The structure is not he difficult part” of the development. The software is the “crux of the investment we are making now,” he says. Boeing is paying for this work out of its internal research and development accounts.

Customers can expect delivery within two years of an order, Lopez says.

These options could interest the U.S. Air Force, which is exploring opportunities to disaggregate missions in the future so as not to have to develop massive, $1 billion satellites such as the Space-Based Infrared System or Advanced Extremely High Frequency constellation. Though this may not be a cheaper approach than building large satellites, it could offer more flexibility and resiliency than today’s architecture, says Gen. William Shelton, Air Force Space Command chief.

The nearest term opportunities for the Air Force to buy into such a smaller satellite option are likely in a few years when the service must decide on whether to buy a 7th Sbirs and AEHF satellite. In the meantime, however, Shelton tells Aviation Week that he will be a “very demanding task master on the weather satellite” being developed in the wake of the demise of the National Polar Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System’s termination in 2010. “It has got to stay very small,” he says, adding that hosting weather sensors on other satellites is also an option in the trade space as the Air Force looks for new environmental monitoring concepts.

Boeing officials say Phoenix customers can tailor the avionics and designed-in redundancy based on unique needs.

The concept grew out of two influences at Boeing. The company delivered two Space Environmental NanoSat Experiment satellites to the Air Force last year; and this was a jumping off point for the Phantom Phoenix concept. Additionally, the rapid prototyping and production team behind the 702 SP all-electric satellite was shifted to work on the Phantom Phoenix in order to repeat the process.

Though Boeing has sold small satellites before, it is best known for its larger, more expensive bus offerings. Branching into smaller satellites is a move to cut into business traditionally held by such companies as Orbital Sciences or Ball. Lopez says he expects no problems competing in this market. “If the price is the wrong price then they won’t sell,” he says.

Initial development work is being handled at the company’s Huntington Beach, Calif., facility.

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