Latest Soyuz/Fregat Delay Underscores Issue for Small-satellite Owners

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Updated at 12:10 p.m. EDT

BEIJING — The planned mid-December launch of a Russian Soyuz/Fregat rocket carrying a Russian weather satellite and a half-dozen small satellites for British, Norwegian and Canadian customers has been delayed again, to late February, following the latest series of issues with the main satellite payload, industry officials said.

The delay, which is not the first for this launch, illustrates the immutable reality confronted by owners of small satellites: You launch at the convenience of the principal passenger, and not before.

Russia’s Meteor-M2 polar-orbiting meteorological satellite has faced delays in the past that have kept the secondary payloads — Norway’s AISSat-2, Canada’s M3MSat, Britain’s TechDemoSat and UKube among them — on the ground. 

The Soyuz delay follows a two-year grounding of the Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr silo-launched rocket, which small-satellite owners hope may now be returning to the market pending an agreement between Russia’s military space forces and the Russian space agency, Roscosmos. 

Dnepr is a converted ballistic missile whose maintenance and operation still depend on Russian military assistance. For commercial launches, the space forces expect to be paid.

Industry officials attending the 64th International Astronautical Congress here Sept. 23-27 said the growing number of small satellites ranging in launch mass from several kilograms to several hundred kilograms is pressuring the launch market to change beyond raising launch prices.

Several companies are now active in negotiating secondary payload slots for small satellite owners, mainly with Russian and Ukrainian launch service providers.

Commercial Space Technologies (CST) of Britain and Moscow is one of those companies. CST has been active for nearly 20 years and has arranged multiple launches for small-satellite specialist Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. of Britain.

In a presentation here during the International Astronautical Congress, CST’s Alain Webb said the company had arranged 15 launches since 1995 on Tsyklon, Zenit, Dnepr, Cosmos and Soyuz vehicles, with the latest being the July 2012 Soyuz launch of the ADS-1B/ExactView-1 maritime surveillance satellite used by exactEarth of Canada for commercial Automatic Information Systems (AIS) ship identification services.

CST has several customers on the Soyuz/Fregat launch that had been planned for December and is now delayed to February.

CST has struck up a relationship with Innovative Solutions in Space, located in Delft, Netherlands and South Africa, which makes payload dispensers and is an industrial partner for the QB50 mission to launch multiple small satellites, called cubesats, into very low orbit. The satellites, weighing around 1 kilogram each, are built by different manufacturers around the world, all working to the same specifications.

Webb said CST’s role is to use its expertise in Russia to secure launch prices and schedules that might be beyond the reach of small-satellite owners approaching the Russian and Ukrainian market. Some of these launch service providers, he said, are overwhelmed by the number of small-satellite owners now seeking launch opportunities and tend to react with prices that may be unaffordable for small-satellite owner/operators.