PARIS — Lockheed Martin’s surprise contract to launch the Mexican government’s Morelos 3 telecommunications satellite aboard an Atlas 5 rocket was made possible by a new relationship with supplier United Launch Alliance (ULA) that will enable it to offer more-competitive pricing and better manifest flexibility, Lockheed Martin officials said.

Though highly reliable, Atlas 5 has been all but absent from the commercial geostationary launch services market for several years due to its high cost and the difficulty of squeezing commercial missions into ULA’s crowded government manifest. But Robert Cleave, president of Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services, said things are changing on both fronts and that the company expects to be able to capture two commercial contracts per year starting in 2015. 

“In the past our relationship [with ULA] has been one of we try to go out with bids, they would give us pricing, and we would not get selected because our price was too high,” Cleave said in an interview here at the World Satellite Business Week conference organized by Euroconsult. “In this particular one we really worked closely with ULA, more as a partner than as a supplier.”

Denver-based Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services announced Sept. 9 it had landed a contract with Mexico’s Communications and Transport Ministry to launch Morelos 3 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., aboard an Atlas 5 rocket as early as 2015. Financial terms of the contract were not disclosed and Cleave declined to comment on the price.  

Also known as Mexsat-2, the 5,400-kilogram Morelos 3 satellite is one of three ordered from Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, Calif., in late 2010. Boeing is building two large L-band mobile communications satellites and farmed out a smaller C- and Ku-band satellite to Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va. 

The Orbital-built satellite, for fixed satellite services, was launched last December aboard an Ariane 5 rocket.

The Atlas 5 was last used to launch a commercial geosynchronous-orbiting communications satellite in 2009. The payload on that mission was the Intelsat 14 satellite that also carried the Internet Router in Space experiment, and the contract for that launch preceded the 2006 creation of ULA, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture focused almost exclusively on the U.S. government market.

Lockheed Martin currently has just two other commercial missions under contract, both of them imaging satellites owned by Longmont, Colo.-based DigitalGlobe and scheduled to launch in 2014 and 2015. 

Cleave credited the U.S. Air Force’s planned block buy of up to 36 Atlas 5 and Delta 4 launch vehicle cores from ULA for Lockheed Martin’s ability to bring its commercial launch prices to more competitive levels. The block buy is intended primarily to generate volume-based price discounts for government customers.

ULA’s tight manifests for 2015 and 2016 will limit Lockheed Martin’s ability to win more commercial launch business during the remainder of 2013 or in 2014, said Steve Skladanek, director of marketing at Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services. But the manifest softens a bit after that, creating a situation where Lockheed Martin can “easily” pick up two of the 20-25 commercial contracts available in any given year starting in 2015, he said. Launch contracts typically are signed two years in advance.

Another limiting factor will be the more established commercial launch services providers, who Cleave said are likely to adjust their prices in response to the presence of a lower-cost Atlas 5. Lockheed Martin intends to bid selectively for commercial missions, he said, noting that the Morelos 3 was attractive for a number of reasons including the fact that the customer is the Mexican government.  

Sea Launch and International Launch Services were the losing bidders for the Morelos 3 contract, according to industry officials. Reston, Va.-based International Launch Services is launching the other L-band satellite being built for the Mexican government program.

Arianespace of Evry, France, did not bid for the contract because Morelos 3 will operate in an unusual orbit in which the satellite drifts slightly north and south relative to the equatorial plane. That orbit would have made it difficult for Arianespace to find a co-passenger aboard the Ariane 5, which is optimized to launch two satellites at a time.

Warren Ferster is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews and is responsible for all the news and editorial coverage in the weekly newspaper, the Web site and variety of specialty publications such as show dailies. He manages a staff of seven reporters...