String of Delays Portends Summer Traffic Jam for Launch Providers

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PARIS — A global commercial launch industry often characterized as in chronic oversupply has — not for the first time — seized up with unrelated delays on three of its most active rockets.

Russia’s Proton heavy-lift vehicle is grounded following a May 16 failure that destroyed the Express-AM4R Russian civil/commercial telecommunications satellite. 

The board of inquiry formed immediately after the failure has not issued a statement as to the cause. But the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, on May 27 said another telecommunications satellite — for the same company, Russia Satellite Communications Co. (RSCC) of Moscow — has arrived at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in preparation for an early July launch.

International Launch Services of Reston, Virginia, which markets Proton rockets commercially and has customers anxious to fly, on May 28 said it could not confirm an early July launch and as yet had not received the conclusions of the failure review board. 

As was the case with the May launch of Express-AM4R, the launch of RSCC’s Express-AM6 satellite is considered a Russian government mission and is not handled by ILS.

Meanwhile, Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s Falcon 9 rocket, which in 2013 demonstrated its ability to deliver telecommunications satellites to their most popular destination, geostationary transfer orbit, and has multiple commercial customers awaiting flights, is grounded until at least mid-June. 

Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX wants to get to the bottom of a helium leak that scrapped a mid-May launch of six commercial messaging satellites for Orbcomm of the United States.

Finally, a late May launch of Europe’s Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket carrying Malaysian and Australian telecommunications satellites was delayed to June 6, then delayed again to an undetermined date, with both delays due to unspecified issues with the Optus-10 satellite built by Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, California.

Industry officials on May 28 said Optus 10, owned by Australia’s Optus Pty, was likely to be returned to California to assure a full re-examination of the issues rather than remain at Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport in French Guiana.

In a May 29 statement, Space Systems/Loral President John Celli confirmed that Optus 10 would be flown back to SSL’s facility.

“During final preparation of Optus 10 at the launch site, an anomaly during testing of the propulsion subsystem could not be resolved to satisfy our goal of 100% confidence in mission success,” Celli said. “While the probability of a failure in orbit would have been small, our top priority for quality and reliability required additional testing that could only be performed in our facility. The satellite is currently being prepared for shipment back to Palo Alto.”

Europe’s Arianespace launch consortium did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but the company’s launch manifest for 2014 is already full, with a record number of launches in preparation including missions with the European version of Russia’s medium-lift Soyuz rocket.

Given the immediate demands of Soyuz customers and of the 20-nation European Space Agency, which wants its 20,000-kilogram Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) space station cargo supply ship launched on an Ariane 5 in late July, it will be difficult to reschedule the Optus 10 launch before September. 

The ATV launch is difficult to delay given the complicated traffic management at the international space station.

Optus 10’s co-passenger for the Ariane 5 launch, the Measat 3B satellite owned by commercial fleet operator Measat of Malaysia, may be in for a long summer’s wait, industry officials said.

Argentine officials have recently said their Arsat 1 satellite, which like Optus 10 fits into the lower section of the Ariane 5 — the upper berth is reserved for larger satellites like Measat 3B — is nearing completion and on schedule for shipment to the European spaceport in the coming weeks.

It was unclear whether Arsat 1’s delivery could be accelerated to replace Optus 10 on an Ariane 5 flight earlier than September.

Industry officials said Optus 10, which was responsible for Ariane 5 launch delays and co-passenger protests in 2013 as well, illustrates the still-fragile nature of the manufacture of telecommunications satellites.

Optus 10’s construction was stopped halfway through as its owner sought to auction itself and preferred a half-finished satellite in storage to incurring the capital expense of completing construction and proceeding with the launch.

Contract renegotiations ensued between Space Systems/Loral and Optus, and industry officials attending a recent meeting of global space insurers said these perturbations rippled into the production of the satellite.

“You can’t prove it’s the case, but given all the pushing and pulling around the Optus 10 contract, it’s not a total surprise that we see all these anomalies,” one industry official said. 

 

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