PARIS — Commercial launch services provider Sea Launch AG said it is preparing five Zenit-3SL rockets for launch in the next two years and that two of them are available for new customers seeking 2014 liftoff dates.
Bern, Switzerland-based Sea Launch’s 2014 schedule has assumed greater importance for the global satellite telecommunications market as commercial customers evaluate their options in the wake of the July 2 failure of a Russian Proton rocket and continued uncertainty surrounding the commercial debut of the upgraded Falcon 9 rocket, operated by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif.
Proton and Falcon 9 both have large backlogs of commercial customers, some of which have obligations to their own broadcast customers regarding transponder service-availability dates.
The same basic Zenit rocket that Sea Launch uses, which failed in January, is returning to flight in September with the launch of the Amos-4 telecommunications satellite owned by Spacecom of Israel. This Land Launch campaign is being handled not by Sea Launch but by Moscow-based Space International Services Ltd., which operates its Zenit-3SLB rocket from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The September launch of the 4,200-kilogram Amos-4 will be the first Zenit flight since a Jan. 31 Sea Launch failure that destroyed the Intelsat IS-27 satellite seconds after liftoff from the Sea Launch floating platform in the Pacific Ocean.
The failure, subsequently traced to a poorly manufactured hydraulic oil pump on the rocket’s first stage, delayed the Land Launch flight as well.
In response to SpaceNews inquiries in the wake of the July 2 Proton failure, which will ground all Proton vehicles until an investigation is completed, Sea Launch said it has two launch slots open for customers in 2014.
The company is preparing for the launch of the Eutelsat 3B telecommunications satellite, owned by Paris-based Eutelsat, in the first half of 2014 and said it has two additional rockets whose production schedule is consistent with 2014 campaigns.
In addition to the Eutelsat contract, Sea Launch has reserved a slot for Hong Kong-based AsiaSat’s AsiaSat 6 or AsiaSat 8 satellite, with the final contract dependent on whether SpaceX’s upgraded Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket begins operations soon enough to meet AsiaSat’s schedule.
AsiaSat has booked both satellites on Falcon 9 vehicles, and booked a backup aboard Sea Launch for one of them. SpaceX’s ability to meet its planned 2013-2014 launch dates will depend on when it conducts the initial flights of the Falcon 9 v1.1.
Sea Launch said the AsiaSat slot could be assigned to a new customer “pending prior notification to AsiaSat.”
Another Sea Launch rocket’s production schedule would permit a launch in 2014, and this slot remains unassigned, Sea Launch said.
The two remaining rockets under production for Sea Launch are for launches in 2015.
The Russian Proton vehicle, commercialized by International Launch Services (ILS) of Reston, Va., is one of the two principal rockets providing commercial launch services.
The Proton rocket had been returning to full, near-monthly flight rates following a December 2012 upper-stage anomaly that placed a telecommunications satellite into a bad orbit.
ILS had conducted four launches between March and June of this year as it worked to deliver on customer commitments. The July 2 failure was of a Russian government mission carrying three Glonass positioning, navigation and timing satellites. It was not an ILS-managed launch. But all Proton launches have been suspended pending a Russian government investigation.
Evry, France-based Arianespace, which along with ILS has accounted for most commercial satellite launches in recent years, has said it could produce one or two heavy-lift Ariane 5 ECA rockets in time for 2014 if market demand was sufficient.
In Arianespace’s case, finding customers is more complicated than for Sea Launch because Ariane 5 is designed to carry two telecommunications satellites at a time into geostationary transfer orbit, the destination of most commercial satellites.
Proton and Sea Launch rockets typically carry one large telecommunications satellite at a time.