Inmarsat First To Feel Ripple Effects of Latest Proton Failure

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BOSTON — Russia’s Proton rocket failure on May 16 — the launcher’s fourth failure in 29 months and the sixth since 2010 — is having immediate ripple effects on future missions for commercial and government customers.

The first to quantify the effects was mobile satellite services operator Inmarsat, which on May 18 said the inevitable delay to the launch of its third Global Xpress satellite is forcing the company to withdraw its revenue-growth forecast for core mobile satellite revenue between 2014 and 2016.

Proton’s near-term customers can only presume that, as it has in the past, the rocket will return to launch within three or four months. Delays to future launches will be most dramatic for those with near-term missions such as Inmarsat, then gradually absorbed as the rocket works through its manifest for the rest of 2015 and 2016.

Inmarsat had been preparing for a June Proton launch of Inmarsat’s third and final Global Xpress Ka-band satellite. Once in orbit, it would have given London-based Inmarsat a seamless ring of coverage for commercial and military customers, which Inmarsat has said is key to winning customer commitments to the Global Xpress service.

London-based Inmarsat, in a decision that raised eyebrows at the time, had selected International Launch Services Proton rockets for all three Global Xpress satellites, a decision that has forced multiple delays to the Global Xpress program.

In part to protect against a possible loss of one of its satellites in a launch failure, Inmarsat ordered a fourth Global Xpress satellite from manufacturer Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, California, with a late-2016 launch reservation booked with SpaceX of Hawthorne, California.

In a May 18 statement, Inmarsat Chief Executive Rupert Pearce “remains on schedule for completion in mid-2016, with a potential SpaceX launch in the second half of 2016, providing us with significant mission assurance in the case of any protracted delays in Proton’s return to flight, or a failed launch.”

Inmarsat must now feel as if its Global Xpress program has been dodging bullets as it moves toward deployment of the three satellites between Proton failures.

Pearce’s statement saying Inmarsat could no longer stand behind forecasts of 8-12 percent revenue growth, on average, in core mobile satellite revenue between 2014 and 2016, only barely hid the company’s frustration.

The May 16 liftoff of an ILS Proton rocket carrying Mexico's Centenario mobile communications satellite. Credit: video capture via SpaceVidsTV
The May 16 liftoff of the ill-fated ILS Proton rocket carrying Mexico’s Centenario satellite. Credit: video capture via SpaceVidsTV

“This incident involving a failed Proton launch…is extremely unfortunate and will inevitably delay our launch plans for our third Global Xpress satellite,” Pearce said. “This is the third time our Global Xpress program has suffered launch delays because of Proton launch failures.”

Proton failures in July 2013, May 2014 and now the latest have all forced Inmarsat to recalculate Global Xpress’s in-service date.

As the next scheduled commercial launch, Inmarsat is the most likely to see a one-for-on correlation between the Russian government-led failure review board recommendations and the vehicle’s return to flight, and the Inmarsat launch delays.

Other customers will be doing their own calculations. Turkey’s Turksat 4B and Paris-based Eutelsat’s Eutelsat 9B and 36C were all scheduled for launches this year. As of midday May 18 Eutelsat had not issued an update on possible revenue repercussions.

Russia’s biggest telecommunications satellite operator, Russian Satellite Communications Co. of Moscow, whose fleet expansion has suffered more from Proton failures than anyone else’s, had planned to launch its Express-AM8 this autumn.

Fleet operator Intelsat of Luxembourg and McLean, Virginia, had been counting on an early 2016 launch of its IS-31 satellite, the second of two launches on behalf of DirecTV Latin America.

The European Space Agency’s planned late-January launch of the first of two ExoMars orbiter and lander missions with Russia’s Roscosmos space agency cannot be moved by three or four months without sacrificing the 2016 launch window and waiting another two years for an opportunity.