O3b Forfeited September Launch Out of Abundance of Caution, CEO Says

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PARIS — At least two of the four in-orbit satellites owned by startup broadband provider O3b Networks have exhibited minor power anomalies on their payloads that caused O3b to scrap a planned Sept. 30 launch even though the decision may cost the company several months of initial revenue, O3b Chief Executive Steve Collar said Sept. 10.

In an interview, Collar said what he called “low-voltage” events on the satellites, launched in June, have no effect on the satellites’ performance and may in fact be of no consequence.

But faced with demands by launch service provider Arianespace for an immediate go/no-go decision, O3b and its satellite builder, Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy, decided to pull the satellites off the Arianespace manifest until they determined the cause of the anomaly.

Given the crowded and complicated manifest that Evry, France-based Arianespace must manage, with both heavy-lift Ariane 5 and medium-lift Europeanized Soyuz rockets to launch from Europe’s spaceport by the end of the year, the O3b decision may force the company to suffer a months-long launch delay.

Based in Britain’s Channel Islands, O3b has ordered 12 satellites from Thales Alenia Space and had been counting on generating initial revenue once it had eight of them in service. The first four, launched aboard a Europeanized Soyuz, are now in operation. But only when the second group of four is in service will O3b be able to provide sufficient coverage to begin commercial service.

Collar said that while he is confident the problem is not serious, and may require no further work on the four satellites being prepared for launch, he preferred to pay the price of delayed revenue rather than risk a problem that could have long-term consequences.

“It will take a handful of days to make sure this is clearly understood,” Collar said here on the margins of the World Satellite Business Week conference, organized by Euroconsult. “It is a non-service-related issue, but we want to be sure we understand it, so we took the decision to remove it from the Arianespace manifest. My only concern is managing my customers’ expectations.”

Arianespace officials have said repeatedly that they are still early on the learning curve of how to operate three vehicles — the small-satellite launcher Vega is now operational at the Guiana Space Center spaceport in addition to Ariane 5 and Soyuz — with maximum efficiency.

For the moment, going from a Soyuz launch to an Ariane 5 takes three weeks. Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel has said he wants to reduce that to two weeks by the end of this year.

The interval between two Soyuz rockets is slightly more than seven weeks, and it is this issue that may force O3b to wait until early 2014 for a launch.

The 20-nation European Space Agency (ESA) has planned the launch of its $1.34 billion Gaia star-mapping satellite aboard a Europeanized Soyuz rocket for Nov. 20 — seven weeks after the now-scrubbed O3b launch.

Gaia has already arrived at the spaceport, on the northeast coast of South America, and ESA officials have said they are able to launch earlier should that be possible given the Soyuz schedule.

Israel said Arianespace is looking into whether advancing the Gaia launch is feasible.

Collar said it is possible that O3b and Thales Alenia Space could resolve the low-voltage issue in a matter of days, meaning O3b could be ready for launch in short order. But that would risk moving Gaia into December, and Arianespace has a heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket scheduled then.

Collar, whose company’s first launch was delayed because of an ESA launch of the ATV cargo vehicle to the international space station under circumstances that O3b officials questioned, said he has no issues this time around with Arianespace.

“I am confident that Arianespace will do what it can to get us the earliest possible launch date,” Collar said. He said it remains possible that the launch could occur this year. 

For the moment, the four O3b satellites are being kept at the Guiana Space Center spaceport awaiting the conclusion of the investigation into what is causing the power anomaly.