ILS says Proton Medium will compete head to head with Falcon 9


MOSCOW — International Launch Services expects its new, scaled-down variant of Proton-M to be a more direct competitor with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket than the current heavy-lift version ILS has used for decades.

Kirk Pysher, president of ILS, said the company is banking on Proton Medium as the company’s next step — a vehicle more important to the commercial sector than Angara 5, Russia’s modular, next-generation launcher, which ILS has commercial rights to like Proton. Angara 5 is optimized for heavyweight spacecraft as a direct replacement for Proton-M starting in 2025, but would likely be applicable for just one to two missions per year, Pysher said, and that launch rate would not be enough to constitute a steady business.

“We need to target something between $65 [million] and $55 million as the price point, and the Angara 5 vehicle will not be able to do that,” Pysher told SpaceNews. “That is why it is not really the right fit for the current commercial market as we see it today. We need that family of vehicles that the variants address.”

SpaceX advertises $62 million for a Falcon 9 launch to geostationary transfer orbit.

Proton Medium is a variant of Proton-M that lacks a third stage, swapping out the engines for a support structure to keep the rocket relatively similar in size. Compared to Proton-M, which can carry up to 7 metric tons to geostationary transfer orbit, Proton Medium lifts 5 to 5.7 metric tons. ILS also has plans for a smaller variant called Proton Light, but its development is on hold pending Proton Medium’s completion in late 2018.

ILS is now betting that Proton Medium will address the biggest share of the marketplace today, eclipsing the workhorse Proton-M in launch cadence once fully operational.

“It fits that sweet spot where we see the medium-class satellite is today, and it competes directly with Falcon 9,” Pysher said.

Next year’s nadir

ILS has just one commercial launch scheduled for next year — a dual launch in late 2018 carrying the Eutelsat 5 West B telecommunications satellite and MEV-1, Orbital ATK’s first satellite-servicing Mission Extension Vehicle.

Proton Medium
Proton Medium sketch. Credit: ILS

Pysher attributed next year’s light manifest to Proton failure investigations underway in 2014 and 2015 when many commercial satellite fleet operators were lining up their rides.

Proton averaged a failure a year from 2010 to 2015, resulting in stringent quality initiatives by manufacturer and ILS owner Khrunichev to reinforce the rocket’s reliability.

Those quality initiatives prompted last year’s recall of several Proton engines that had been assembled using an out-of-spec solder, slowing 2016 and 2017 launches. Proton launched three times in 2016 and four times this year. The Russian government has one more Proton launch planned before year’s end.

Proton’s spate of failures unnerved insurers, who demanded higher premiums from satellite operators who chose the rocket. Pysher said several underwriters stepped away from Proton launches or reduced the amount of money they were willing to put at risk, driving rates up.

“As we see it right now, the underwriting market has assumed Proton to be a one failure out of 10 launch attempt product. That’s the way they have priced it in the market, and we have to prove them wrong,” he said, adding that Proton currently has 12 consecutive successes. “Once we achieve 15 successes in a row, we expect to see a lot of the underwriters that stepped away to come back. They’ve made a lot of money on Proton in the past, and they want Proton back in the marketplace.”

Pysher said Proton should launch five to six times in 2018 with Russian government payloads, and once with ILS’s one commercial mission. He added ILS can accommodate additional customers in 2018 and “would not rule out any opportunity.” ILS has 12 missions in backlog, including one Proton Medium mission from Eutelsat for a launch in 2019 or 2020.

Dual launch opportunity?

Pysher said satellite operators are looking more intensely at sharing a Proton-M with another customer as a means to drive costs down further. While the Russian government has launched a number of dual missions with Proton-M, the Eutelsat-Orbital ATK mission will be Proton’s first commercial dual launch.

In contrast to Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket, which routinely flies dual passengers and uses a protective case called SYLDA (Système de Lancement Double Ariane) for the lower-berth satellite, Proton’s dual passengers must stack their satellites directly on top one another. That stacking means the top of the lower satellite must be clear of easily crushable instruments. Satellite manufacturers typically use the open real estate on the Earth-facing top of a satellite to mount antennas, making this requirement a challenge for would-be ILS dual-launch customers.

Pysher said Boeing’s 702SP bus, which fleet operators Eutelsat and ABS used for two dual launches on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets, was expected to be a breakthrough in stacked configurations. No other dual launches of stacked 702SP have followed suit, however. MEV-1 is an exception to ILS’s dual launch dilemma in that it has nothing on its top that would be jeopardized by stacking, Pysher said.

Pysher said ILS has no payload separator like Ariane 5 because the added mass reduces how much satellite payload Proton can launch. Arianespace can launch approximately 10 tons to GTO with the Ariane 5, about three tons more than Proton. ILS would take a larger mass penalty by implementing a divider on Proton, but if a SYLDA-like product is truly needed, Pysher said ILS would invest in it.

ILS and Khrunichev are also developing a 5-meter fairing that, based on customer inquiries, would likely see more use for low-Earth-orbit mega-constellations than for larger geostationary satellites, Pysher said. That fairing is expected in 2020.