SpaceX launches final two satellites in SES C-band clearing plan

A Falcon 9 launches the last two satellites in SES’ C-band spectrum clearing plan March 17. Credit: SpaceX

TAMPA, Fla. — SpaceX launched the last two satellites March 17 that SES needs to claim C-band spectrum clearing proceeds worth nearly $4 billion in total.

The operator said it has successfully made contact with SES-18 and SES-19 after they were dropped off in geosynchronous transfer orbit by a Falcon 9, which lifted off 7:38 p.m. Eastern from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida

The rocket’s first-stage booster also successfully landed on SpaceX’s droneship in the Atlantic Ocean for reuse following its sixth flight.

Earlier in the day, a Falcon 9 launching from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, deployed 52 satellites in low Earth orbit for SpaceX’s Starlink broadband constellation.

Ahead of schedule

SES said SES-18 and SES-19, built by Northrop Grumman, are due to start services in June after using onboard hydrazine-fueled propulsion to reach their geostationary orbital slots.

SES-18 is set to replace the operator’s aging SES-3 satellite at 103 degrees west. 

SES-19 is heading to 135 degrees west to join the SES-22 satellite that SpaceX launched last year.

SES-22 was the first to launch of six satellites SES ordered to help migrate broadcast customers into a narrower swath of C-band so more frequencies can be used for terrestrial 5G services in the United States.

United Launch Alliance launched two other satellites for the operator’s C-band clearing strategy in October on an Atlas 5 rocket: SES-20 and SES-21.

The sixth C-band satellite SES ordered under this plan is being used as a ground spare.

All costs related to the C-band clearing are eligible for reimbursement, using proceeds the Federal Communications Commission raised in 2021 from auctioning off the frequencies to wireless operators.

SES also stands to get $3.97 billion in total incentive payments from the FCC if it can move customers and filter antennas on the ground in time for clearing the frequencies by Dec. 5.

The operator said its C-band clearing activities are currently running ahead of schedule.

Intelsat also holds a sizable chunk of C-band in the United States and has ordered seven satellites for its clearing plan, with none serving as ground spares. 

SpaceX is slated to launch Intelsat-37, the final satellite left to launch in this spectrum-clearing strategy, on a dedicated Falcon 9 in June.

Intelsat is in line to get $4.9 billion in total proceeds if it can meet the FCC’s deadline in December, although SES is challenging its share of this windfall.

SES and Intelsat have already unlocked more than $2 billion in combined proceeds by hitting the FCC’s initial incentive payment milestone in 2021.

Artemis gap

The budget presentation included an updated schedule for the Artemis campaign of lunar exploration. That included a November 2024 date for Artemis 2, the first crewed Space Launch System/Orion mission, a date NASA officials gave in a March 7 briefing about the uncrewed Artemis 1 mission.

That schedule shows a December 2025 launch date for Artemis 3, which will include the first human lunar landing of Artemis using SpaceX’s Starship lunar lander and spacesuits being developed by Axiom Space. “We’re still pressing to make Artemis 3 in 2025 and proceed on from there,” Bob Cabana, NASA associate administrator, said at the briefing.

However, Artemis 4, previously projected for 2027, had slipped to September 2028 in the new manifest. That will also feature a lunar landing using Starship as well as use of the lunar Gateway. It will also be the first launch of the upgraded Block 1B version of SLS with additional payload capacity, which on that mission will be used to deliver the I-Hab habitation module to the Gateway.

NASA officials at the briefing did not discuss the Artemis 4 slip, but Cabana mentioned the complexity of the mission. “We’re doing our very best to keep it on schedule,” he said. “Yes, it slipped a little bit, but there’s a lot that has to come together for Artemis 4, between the enhanced upper stage, the Gateway, Gateway logistics, the second mobile launcher. All of that has to work.”

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