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Independent IS-19 Investigation Clears Sea Launch Rocket

Intelsat's IS-19 satellite. Credit: Space Systems/Loral photo

PARIS — The June failure of an Intelsat telecommunications satellite to deploy one of its solar arrays correctly, which resulted in an $84 million insurance claim, was caused by a defect in the Space Systems/Loral-built satellite and not by any issue with the Sea Launch rocket that placed it into orbit, the companies announced Dec. 19.

The joint statement by Space Systems/Loral (SS/L) and Sea Launch does not disclose the exact cause of the deployment problem on the Intelsat IS-19 satellite, saying only that it was due to “a rare combination of factors in the panel fabrication” and that the damage was done during the rocket’s ascent, before the satellite separated from the Sea Launch vehicle.

Both companies spent their own resources on an extended investigation into what happened to IS-19, which eventually was able to fully deploy the stuck solar array but sustained permanent damage as a result of the defect.

In a filing to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in November, SS/L’s former parent company, Loral Space and Communications — which sold SS/L in early November — said SS/L had reported a $22 million charge in the three months ending Sept. 30 as a result of the solar-array issue.

Luxembourg- and Washington-based Intelsat has filed a claim for about $84 million with its insurance underwriters, estimating that about one-third of IS-19’s power has been lost because of the problem.

The two companies initially pointed the finger at each other. SS/L, which in recent years has been the most successful manufacturer of commercial telecommunications satellites, said its hardware has had no such problem elsewhere — except during a 2004 launch, also aboard a Sea Launch rocket. But even that link was not clear, since a half-dozen SS/L-built satellites were successfully launched by Sea Launch vehicles in the intervening years.

Sea Launch, with less of a track record than Loral in the past few years, was put on the defensive but said its telemetry showed no unusual functioning of the rocket from the time of launch until the satellite separated.

With an initial investigation reaching no definitive conclusion — similar to what happened during the inquiry following the 2004 anomaly, involving the Estrela do Sul/Telstar 14 satellite — SS/L and Sea Launch agreed to divide the cost of their own, in-depth investigation.

The three-member Independent Oversight Board that performed the investigation was led by John Wormington, a former vice president of the Aerospace Corp. of El Segundo, Calif., the not-for-profit company that performs engineering support to U.S. national security space programs.

In a statement, Wormington said SS/L and Sea Launch “were extremely cooperative in providing the data and analyses that we required, and worked well in solving this very elusive problem. We have very high confidence in the conclusion.”

SS/L President John Celli said the satellite builder “can now clearly say that the interactions between the satellite and launch vehicle were not contributing factors. SS/L is already taking actions to assure mission success for all upcoming launches.”

Kjell Karlsen, president of Bern, Switzerland-based Sea Launch, said the board’s findings “validated that the launch vehicle did not cause or contribute to the observed anomaly … Sea Launch is pleased to have had the opportunity to assist SS/L in finding a definitive cause.”

The two companies’ statement said the failure “occurred before the spacecraft separated from the launch vehicle, during the ascent phase of the launch, and originated in one of the satellite’s two solar array wings due to a rare combination of factors in the panel fabrication … [T]he anomaly resulted in structural and electrical damage to one solar array wing, which reduced the amount of power available for payload operation.”

 

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