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Editorial | Moscow, We Have a Problem

The Dec. 9 mishap involving Russia’s Proton rocket, the third in 16 months and fourth in two years, raises serious reliability concerns about a critical workhorse for the satellite telecommunications industry. The incident makes crystal clear the need for a thorough review of the materials and processes associated with building and operating the Proton.

Following a Proton failure in a government mission in August, International Launch Services (ILS), the Reston, Va., company that markets the Proton commercially, sought to make the case that these were isolated incidents and that there is no systemic problem with the vehicle. That might still turn out to be the case, but after a Proton left Gazprom’s Yamal 402 satellite in the wrong orbit on an ILS mission, that argument is less convincing. So too is ILS’s standing assertion that the commercial satellite industry doesn’t need any more launch providers.

Of particular concern is the Proton’s Breeze-M upper stage, which carries telecommunications satellites to geostationary orbit and which has been implicated in the last three mishaps. The Breeze-M, built by Proton prime contractor Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, one of the flagships of Russia’s sprawling space industrial complex, shut down prematurely during the Yamal 402 launch.

For Gazprom Space Systems, the impact of the malfunction isn’t fully clear; it depends on whether the Yamal 402 can reach its geostationary-orbit operating position using its own station-keeping fuel and if so, by how many years will the maneuver reduce the satellite’s nominal 15-year life expectancy. This will affect the satellite’s revenue-generating capacity, which in turn will determine the size of the claim Gazprom files with insurers.

The next customer in the ILS launch queue, Satmex of Mexico, might be in a tougher spot. The cash-strapped company badly needs to get its Satmex 8 satellite on orbit to replace the aging Satmex 5 satellite, which is expected to exhaust its station-keeping fuel around May. Satmex 8 was supposed to launch in December, but that date now appears unlikely. A significant delay could cause Satmex 5’s customers to flee to other providers, something Satmex can ill afford.

For the commercial satellite telecommunications industry at large, the question is whether there will be sufficient capacity to launch the 20 or more spacecraft that need to be deployed annually in 2013 and beyond. ILS, with Proton, is one of two primary providers to that market, the other being Europe’s Arianespace consortium, whose Ariane 5 vehicle typically lofts two satellites at a time.

Arianespace in theory can launch 12 commercial satellites per year, a figure that assumes six launches, each carrying two satellites, which isn’t always possible. Sea Launch, which is getting back on its feet after bankruptcy reorganization, hopes to be launching four times per year by 2014. Upstart Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), which has been aggressively marketing its Falcon 9 rocket commercially and landing contracts, has yet to launch a geostationary-orbiting satellite and will have to substantially ramp up production to fulfill a busy manifest that includes a large number of NASA missions in the coming years.

Barring China’s re-entry into the mainstream commercial market, which is highly unlikely in the near term, the commercial satellite industry needs Proton, and soon. That said, this is no time to rush the Proton back into service. The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, and its industrial partners are known for quickly returning rockets to flight — usually with a government payload aboard — following failures, but they need to scrub Proton production top to bottom to win back the confidence of commercial satellite operators and insurers. The investigation and resulting corrective actions must be carried out with as much transparency as Russian technology-export rules permit.

If the process takes a bit longer than typically has been the case, then so be it. If the Proton is rushed back into service, only to fail again within the next year or two, the speedy turnaround will not have been worth it, even if it offers a temporary measure of relief to the satellite industry.

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