RSCC’s Expansion Plan Back on Track with Express-AM5 Launch

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PARIS — Russia’s Proton-M Breeze-M rocket on Dec. 27 successfully placed the transponder-packed Express-AM5 telecommunications satellite into orbit in a key milestone for the Russian Satellite Communications Co. (RSCC), whose near-term growth plans have been slowed by rocket and satellite issues.

Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, and Proton’s builder, the Khrunichev Space Center of Moscow, said in separate statements that the rocket’s Breeze-M upper stage released the Express-AM5 into the planned transfer orbit some five hours and 12 minutes after liftoff from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The satellite’s launch was insured for 7.08 billion Russian rubles, or $217 million.

Express-AM5, which weighed 3,400 kilograms at launch, is based on the Express-2000 platform built by ISS Reshetnev of Krasnoyarsk, Russia. The payload, built by MDA Corp. of Canada, consists of 30 C-band, 40 Ku-band, 12 Ka-band and two L-band transponders.

MDA Corp.’s contract with RSCC, valued at $200 million, includes a similar four-band payload for the Express-AM6 satellite, planned for launch in 2014. Each satellite will provide about 13 kilowatts of power to its payload.

In addition to broadcast and broadband services, Express-AM5 will provide mobile communications to Russian government authorities, RSCC said. The satellite will operate at 140 degrees east in geostationary orbit and is expected to enter service in May following testing, RSCC said.

Moscow-based RSCC’s expansion plans have been slowed in the past couple of years by Proton launch failures and unexpected in-orbit satellite failures. The latest incidents were the July Proton failure, which did not carry an RSCC satellite but delayed RSCC’s launch plans; and the July failure of the Express-MD1 satellite.

Launched in 2009, Express-MD1 failed suddenly in orbit and forced RSCC to scramble existing capacity to maintain broadcast coverage. Express-MD1 was a Khrunichev-built platform and carried a payload provided by Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy.

The Express-AM1 satellite, operating at 40 degrees east, also was decommissioned in August after less than nine years of operations. This satellite used a platform from ISS Reshetnev and a payload from NEC/Toshiba Space Systems of Japan and had been expected to operate for at least 10 years. It suffered an initial failure in mid-2010.

With Express-AM5 now in orbit, RSCC has six spacecraft under construction and planned for launch by the end of 2014. It is also in the final stages of selecting a contractor for the Express-AMU2 satellite, to carry a total of 80 C- and Ku-band transponders and to operate at 103 degrees east starting in 2016.

RSCC has said it has budgeted 5.8 billion Russian rubles for Express-AMU2, with a contract to be signed in January.

In a Dec. 27 statement, RSCC General Director Yuri Prokhorov said the successful launch of Express-AM5 “opens a new page in the development of the Russian constellation. We are facing an enormous amount of work next year aimed at commissioning of the newly launched spacecraft in addition to another six satellites [and] at switching over the networks now in service to these [new satellites].”

It is unclear whether the Express-AMU2 contract negotiations will be slowed by the Russian government’s recent announcement that it would reduce its reliance on non-Russian-built spacecraft for the nation’s federal program, which includes otherwise commercial telecommunications spacecraft such as Express-AM5.

RSCC, and to some extent its competitor, Gazprom Space Systems of Moscow, is already obliged to use Proton for its launches. Both have also ordered multiple satellites using European, Canadian and Japanese payload technology.

Astrium Satellites and Thales Alenia Space, Europe’s two largest satellite manufacturers, have both moved to create joint-venture companies in Russia to be able to continue finding business there in what may be a tougher regulatory climate.

Astrium is already under contract to build the Express-AM4R and Express-AM7 satellites, both scheduled for launch in 2014. Astrium has been training engineers from Russian space hardware builder RSC Energia of Kaliningrad and Russia’s Radio R&D Institute, NIIR, under the satellite procurement contract.

Thales Alenia Space has built more than a dozen communications payloads for Russia’s two satellite fleet operators and had been considered a likely builder of Gazprom’s Yamal-601 Ka-band spacecraft.

Astrium and Thales Alenia Space officials recently reaffirmed their confidence that the joint ventures they have created in Russia will allow them to take part in Russia’s satellite construction and deployment market, which is one of the world’s most dynamic.

While waiting for the new satellites to launch, RSCC is obliged to fill holes in its coverage as it can. Because of the delay in the launch of the Express-AT1 satellite to 56 degrees east for communications services in Siberia, RSCC moved its aging Bonum-1 satellite to that position.

But Bonum-1 — built by Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, Calif., and launched in 1998 with a planned 11.5-year service life — is not expected to operate beyond February, several months before the Express-AT1 is ready for service even assuming it is launched in March, as now scheduled.

RSCC has leased the DirecTV-1R satellite from U.S. satellite television broadcaster DirecTV Group and moved it to 56 degrees east to take over from Bonum-1 and offer service continuity until Express-AT1 is available. DirecTV-1R was launched in 1999 and had been scheduled for retirement. The satellite is in inclined orbit, a fuel-saving measure to extend a satellite’s service life by no longer stabilizing its position on the north-south axis.

RSCC announced on Dec. 25 that following a competition among three Russian insurance brokers, Ingosstrakh — which insured Express-AM5 — had been selected to provide coverage for five in-orbit Express satellites, with the coverage totaling 2.5 billion rubles. In-orbit coverage typically is renewed each year.