O3b Satellites Returned to Manufacturer for Testing

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PARIS — Startup satellite broadband provider O3b Networks has returned its second group of four spacecraft to their manufacturing facility in Italy after calling off a planned late-September launch because of a signal power anomaly on the first four satellites, O3b Chief Executive Steve Collar said Oct. 2.

The four newer satellites, which had been scheduled for a Sept. 30 launch aboard a Europeanized Soyuz rocket from Europe’s Guiana Space Center on the northeast coast of South America, were flown to prime contractor Thales Alenia Space’s Rome production plant for what Collar said is likely to be two or three weeks of tests.

In an interview, Collar reiterated that the power anomaly observed on at least two of the first four O3b spacecraft launched in June is not serious enough to compromise their mission. It has not become more serious in the several weeks since it was first discovered, he said. Collar said the company acted out of caution in pulling the spacecraft from the manifest of commercial launch services provider Arianespace.

Surrendering its September launch slot aboard the Soyuz is likely to force O3b to wait until early 2014 for a new place on the manifest. Next up on the Soyuz is the European Space Agency’s Gaia star mapping satellite, scheduled for launch Nov. 20. Given the nearly seven weeks it takes to transition from one Soyuz launch to another, the O3b mission would in any event be unlikely until early 2014.

Collar said O3b, which is based in Britain’s Channel Islands, will not begin talks with Evry, France-based Arianespace on a new launch date until the tests in Rome determine what the power issue is on the orbiting spacecraft and whether it is serious enough to require satellite modifications.

O3b has a third set of four satellites under construction at Thales Alenia Space. These had been scheduled for a mid-2014 launch aboard a Europeanized Soyuz. Collar said that remains the objective but conceded that Arianespace’s Soyuz manifest for 2014 at this point looks just as crowded as the 2013 Soyuz manifest did a year ago.

Europe’s Galileo satellite constellation, whose initial launches are two satellites at a time aboard the Soyuz, has been delayed until late spring 2014. If that schedule holds, demand for Soyuz in 2014 may exceed the planned four liftoffs during the year.

Collar stressed that O3b’s relations with Arianespace, which were strained due to launch manifest debates before the June launch of the first satellites, are now excellent.