Orbital Eyes Broader Antares Business, GeoStar Satellite Platform Upgrade

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PARIS — Satellite and rocket builder Orbital Sciences Corp. on Feb. 13 said it is sharpening its commercial focus this year with its first bid for a commercial launch award for its new Antares rocket and a $25 million investment in its GeoStar commercial telecommunications satellite product line to give it an electric-propulsion capability.

Dulles, Va.-based Orbital also said the profitability of its $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA to deliver supplies to the international space station is improving as the Antares rocket and the Cygnus cargo vehicle hit their production and launch rhythm.

Orbital Chief Executive David W. Thompson said the operating profit margin on the CRS program has risen to 5.5 percent from 5 percent, and will reach 6 percent sometime this year.

Orbital has conducted three Antares launches, two of them with the Cygnus capsule. All have been successful. The latest of these, in January, was the first of a planned eight flights under the CRS program. Two more are scheduled for 2014, with three in 2015 and the final two in 2016.

Thompson said that with NASA’s recent announcement that it wants to keep operating the space station beyond 2020, to 2024, a fresh Antares/Cygnus order is likely in 2014. He said it was not clear when NASA would place a larger CRS-2 order to cover the station’s supply needs beyond 2017-2018.

With the medium-lift Antares now having proved itself with three successful flights in 8.5 months, Orbital has begun thinking of commercial business and non-NASA U.S. government work for the vehicle.

In a conference call with investors, Thompson said the company recently made its first commercial Antares bid, for an unidentified non-U.S. customer, and is awaiting a decision. 

Depending on the configuration, Antares can place payloads weighing between 2,000 and 3,000 kilograms into a 700-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit, which puts it in about the same class, but with somewhat more power, as the European Vega small-satellite launcher. Arianespace, which markets Vega, has had recent success in booking commercial launch orders for Earth observation satellites aboard that rocket.

Orbital began development of Antares five years ago on the assumption that it could reach a launch rate of five or six campaigns per year. Thompson said Orbital still expects to reach that rate around 2018, assuming it settles on a long-term solution for the vehicle’s first-stage engine. Orbital and GenCorp’s Aerojet Rocketdyne of Sacramento, Calif., have been negotiating a restart of a discontinued Russian production line to assure a long-term supply of the AJ-26 first-stage engine for Antares.

Orbital is also seeking access to the Russian RD-180 engine now used, on an exclusive basis in the United States, by United Launch Alliance of Denver, Colo., for ULA’s Atlas 5. Orbital has sued ULA for rights to purchase the engine.

Thompson declined to discuss Orbital’s Antares engine strategy but said the matter is likely to be resolved by midyear.

Meanwhile, Orbital’s GEOStar 2 commercial geostationary-orbiting satellite platform in recent years has been able to secure nearly half the global commercial market for small telecommunications satellites, meaning those with no more than 5 kilowatts of power available to the payload.

The company wants to widen its addressable market with a GEOStar 3, providing up to 7.5 kilowatts of power, and is completing the upgraded version’s design, Thompson said. Orbital will be investing around $25 million this year to finish the job and to give the GEOStar 3 design an electric-propulsion option.

Using electric propulsion instead of chemical propellant can save up to 50 percent of the weight of a satellite. It is a technology that most satellite builders say will be a large part of the commercial market in the coming years.

The profitability of Orbital’s commercial satellite business has swung widely in recent years, in part because of the irregularity inherent in a business when only five to seven Orbital-class satellites are ordered globally each year.

Depending on where a satellite is in its production, it may generate operating profit margins that swing wildly from quarter to quarter.

In the last three months of 2013, Orbital’s geostationary satellite business posted an operating profit margin of 4.3 percent, mainly because the company had only one satellite in the final stages of production. A year earlier, the margin was 13.6 percent as late-stage satellites were completed more profitably than expected.

Thompson said that for 2014, the geostationary satellite division will produce an operating-profit margin of about 5.5 percent.

Orbital booked three commercial telecommunications satellite orders in 2013. Thompson said the company should be able to collect four orders in 2014, including the exercise of an option with Hispasat of Spain once that company’s Orbital-built Amazonas 4A satellite, which was late in being delivered, is launched in March.

 

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