Outlook for 2014 Remains Bright Despite Launch Failures in 2013

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PARIS — Headlining 2013 as a year in which the Russian-Ukrainian Sea Launch, Russian Proton and Chinese Long March rockets all suffered failures would be misleading.

While those failures did occur, and resulted in the destruction of expensive satellite hardware, it is also true that the same Sea Launch Zenit-3 rocket that failed in January, destroying an Intelsat telecommunications satellite, returned to flight in its Land Launch version in September to launch Israel-based Spacecom’s Amos 4.

And the same Proton vehicle that failed so spectacularly in July, causing the loss of three Glonass positioning, navigation and timing satellites, returned to flight in September with the successful launch of Luxembourg-based SES’s Astra 2E.

China’s Long March 2B failure in early December destroyed the China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite, but China’s Long March 3B, the heavy-lift workhorse for commercial missions, flew successfully later that month, placing Bolivia’s Tupac Katari telecommunications satellite into geostationary transfer orbit.

Russia’s heavy-lift Proton rocket failure, as dramatic as it was, nonetheless demonstrated yet again how quickly the commercial market, and Proton’s builders, are ready to return to operations of a vehicle with a half-century’s credibility behind it.

In part because the Proton’s recent record shows its failures concentrated in Russian government missions, 2013’s mishaps had no material effect on global satellite insurance rates, which remain at historically low levels.

Just as noteworthy in 2013 were the commercial successes of vehicles not usually associated with commercial activity. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ H-2A rocket won a competition to launch Canada-based Telesat’s Telstar 12 Vantage telecommunications satellite in 2015, notching the company’s first commercial telecommunications launch order.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has been saying for the past couple of years that it will make a concerted effort to reduce H-2A’s cost. That effort, plus the increased activity of Japan’s export-credit agency, now appears to be bearing fruit.

Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services’ Atlas 5 rocket won a contract to launch the Mexican government’s Morelos-3/Mexsat-2 telecommunications satellite, a rare commercial win for a rocket generally viewed as even more expensive than it is reliable — and as the U.S. Air Force will attest, it is very reliable.

 

While not a commercial mission, India’s GSLV Mark 2 vehicle, with an Indian-built cryogenic upper stage, successfully launched an Indian telecommunications satellite into geostationary transfer orbit. The launch is a big step in India’s quest for autonomous access to geostationary orbit, much as it already has access to lower orbit with its well-proven PSLV vehicle.

The current GSLV is limited to 2,000-kilogram satellites. But the Mark 3 version in development is designed to launch 4,000-kilogram payloads, positioning India to be able to handle all its telecommunications satellites without recourse to non-Indian launchers, notably Europe’s Ariane 5 vehicle.

Perhaps the most important long-term launcher developments in 2013 came from the United States, where Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket made a successful debut flight. Dulles, Va.-based Orbital managers are already looking beyond their current NASA customer, with the U.S. Air Force, and perhaps commercial customers as well, in Antares’ future.

The commercial market in 2013 finally saw what it had been anticipating for years when Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s (SpaceX) Falcon 9 v1.1 vehicle placed the SES-8 satellite into orbit in December. That launch was followed in January by the successful launch of Thaicom’s Thaicom-6 satellite, whose countdown was uninterrupted.

SpaceX’s commercial launch manifest is well stocked with satellites destined for low and geostationary transfer orbits. The company’s advertised price of less than $60 million per launch, even if it may be trending up, is forcing competitors, notably Arianespace, to make their own price adjustments.

Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX has a busy launch schedule for 2014 and the next question for the company, now that it has demonstrated its rocket commercially, is how fast it can ramp its launch rhythm to digest its backlog, and how it will juggle its NASA and non-NASA customers.