VENICE, Italy — Space insurance underwriters fear an increase in in-orbit failures, whether partial or total, in the coming years as new satellite manufacturers enter the commercial market.
In recent years, satellite failures have accounted for anywhere from 40 percent to 100 percent of annual space insurance losses, even though the number of new satellite platforms introduced into the market has not been excessive.
According to figures produced by Christopher T.W. Kunstadter, vice president of space insurance underwriter XL Insurance of New York, satellites are much more likely to fail during their first year in orbit than at any time after that, even though most commercial geostationary telecommunications satellites are designed to operate for 15 years.
XL figures show that 7 percent of all commercial geostationary satellites launched since 2000 have failed in their first 12 months of operations. The figure varies greatly from one manufacturer to another, with one builder having a 38.2 percent failure rate for its satellites in their first year of service life, and two others having failure rates near zero.
In an April 3 presentation here to the 15th International Space Insurance Conference, organized by Pagnanelli Risk Solutions, Kunstadter said the record for the second and subsequent years is much better – a 2 percent failure rate on average since 2000. But the difference between manufacturers is still large, with a 12.6 percent failure rate for the worst performer, and a zero percent rate for the top three.
In recent years, even veteran satellite platforms built by the most successful builders have experienced problems in orbit with their power subsystems. In some cases it has been the solar array drive mechanism, which orients the solar panels, that has failed to perform. In other cases, it is the strings on the solar panels that deliver the power to the payload that have had problems.
Insurers say the nondisclosure agreements that satellite manufacturers and satellite fleet operators agree to have made it difficult to study these apparently disparate anomalies.
Jeffrey Cassidy, chief operating officer of Global Aerospace Inc., a space underwriter, said the International Union of Aerospace Insurers’ Space Risks Study Group is assembling a catalog of satellite failures.
“Payload and electrical power subsystems are drivers for loss of [satellite] capacity and ultimately insurance-related losses,” Cassidy told the conference, adding that there is at least “anecdotal evidence of periodic recurrence of certain types of anomalies.”
Cassidy is chairman of the Space Risks Study Group and Kunstadter is a member of the committee.
Insurers say new space hardware, whether a launch vehicle or a satellite, historically has been more likely to fail than systems that have been well-proven. For this reason, they expressed concern that failure rates could go up in the coming five years as new commercial platforms enter the market.
New commercial satellite players that are now coming into the market include China Aerospace Corp.; Mitsubishi Electric Co. of Japan; the Indian Space Research Organisation’sAntrix commercial arm; ISS-Reshetnev of Krasnoyarsk, Russia; Polyot of Omsk, Russia; Sierra Nevada Corp. of Sparks, Nev.; OHB System of Bremen, Germany; and RSC Energia of Korolev, Russia.
Satellites from three of these new entrants – Antrix, China Aerospace and Polyot – have recently suffered in-orbit failures in commercial programs.
For the large commercial satellite fleet operators, most of which are still reporting healthy financial results and backlog, the worry is that new technology, combined with a weakened supplier base as satellite component builders cope with the global economic downturn, could spell trouble.
“The industry could be at risk given the fact that many of the satellite subcontractors do not have the same credit rating” as satellite fleet operators, according to Romain Bausch, chief executive of SES of Luxembourg.
Berretta, chief executive of Eutelsat of Paris, said one reason the power subsystem problems may be showing up now on otherwise proven satellite platforms is that satellites are now more likely to operate for 15 years or more in orbit – long enough for power-related glitches to surface.
“Before, no one was dying of cancer because they were all dying of tuberculosis,” Berretta said of the evolution in satellite onboard problems.