Aug. 1 Deadline Set for Selling NewSat’s Ariane 5 Launch Slot to Measat

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PARIS — A U.S. bankruptcy court has given the administrators of Australian satellite operator NewSat Ltd. until Aug. 1 to conclude an agreement with satellite fleet operator Measat of Malaysia to purchase NewSat’s contract with launch-service provider Arianespace of Europe.

In a ruling, the Delaware Bankruptcy Court handling the NewSat case said the company must negotiate the sale of the launch reservation only with Measat, and no other prospective buyer.

The reasoning for limiting prospective buyers to Measat is not clear from the documents filed at the court, but may have to do with Bankruptcy Judge Lauri Selber Silverstein’s impatience with the slow progress of the disposal of NewSat’s assets.

The judge had already agreed to a deadline extension for NewSat to negotiate the contract’s sale only to see the company’s administrators return empty-handed and asking for more time.

“[T]he extension of the [deadline] shall only apply to enable the NewSat Debtors and the Administrators to negotiate the assignment of the LSA [launch service agreement] to Measat and for no other reason or purpose, including the assignment of the LSA to any other third party,” the court said in a July 15 ruling.

Measat and NewSat in the spring had been in round-the-clock negotiations over the sale of NewSat’s nearly completed Jaibiru-1 telecommunications satellite.

With satellite builder Lockheed Martin pressing the court to free it from continued obligations to work on the project – NewSat had stopped paying Sunnyvale, California-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems – the court set a May 22 deal deadline that Measat and NewSat did not meet.

Since then, the satellite, on which $193 million has been spent, with an estimated $78 million more to complete it, is now the property of Lockheed Martin.

The U.S. Export-Import Bank, which had loaned NewSat the financing the pay for the satellite, told a U.S. congressional committee in mid-June that despite the May 22 court order, Ex-Im believed it still had a security claim on the satellite and eventually would recoup some of its investment of more than $100 million.

Ex-Im said it had a security claim on NewSat, but as of May 22 NewSat no longer had a claim on the satellite.

A similar scenario has been played out for the launch contract. Like Lockheed Martin, Evry, France-based Arianespace told the court it had not been paid to continue work preparing an Ariane 5 rocket for NewSat, and had terminated the contract April 3.

The termination notice was issued before NewSat began its Delaware bankruptcy proceedings.

Arianespace had argued that an already-terminated, French-registered contract between non-U.S. companies for a launch to occur outside U.S. territory – and which identified France as the arbitration locale in the event of a dispute – had no business in a Delaware court.

Notwithstanding its appeal, Arianespace has found itself sitting side by side with Lockheed Martin and other NewSat creditors awaiting the Delaware court’s rulings.

On May 29 the court ordered a “standstill agreement” between NewSat and Arianespace, meaning the launch provider did not need to perform further work under the contract, but that NewSat would be given time to sell the contract elsewhere – in other words, the contract remained a NewSat asset.

The Arianespace contract had been guaranteed by the French export-credit agency, Coface, with several French banks assuming a small piece of the risk as well, in keeping with Coface practice.

Jabiru-1 is a large telecommunications satellite that would ride to geostationary-transfer orbit in the upper berth of the heavy-lift Ariane 5. A smaller co-passenger would occupy the lower berth.

Arianespace has said its manifest is fully booked through 2017, assuming that all announced customer payloads arrive on time at the spaceport.

Arianespace has adjusted its competitive posture in the past year or two by lowering lower-berth-satellite prices to meet the competitive threat from SpaceX of Hawthorne, California.

With its heavy-lift competitors, starting with Russia’s Proton vehicle, suffering repeated failures, Arianespace has been able to compensate for the lower prices for smaller satellites by raising prices for the larger ones.

The NewSat launch contract was signed in early 2012. The company’s financial struggles have had the effect of delaying the launch on several occasions, and it is not clear what the latest contract iteration says with respect to Arianespace’s launch-date commitments.

Whatever the launch date, a buyer would almost certainly get a better deal in purchasing the contract from NewSat rather than approaching Arianespace as a new customer seeking a launch slot.