Second group of O3b satellites launch on a Europeanized Soyuz. Credit: Arianespace

WASHINGTON — Satellite fleet operator SES is threatening to cease future dealings with European launch services provider Arianespace unless SES’s O3b Networks broadband satellites are given a spring launch slot also coveted by the European Commission for the commission’s Galileo spacecraft, industry officials said.

SES, which is the world’s second-largest commercial fleet owner, is further saying that a launch before late this year of a second four-pack of O3b satellites — the first four were launched in June 2013 — is crucial to the business’ health because a defect on the in-orbit spacecraft is at risk of taking one or more of them out of service at any moment.

O3b began offering commercial services the week of March 10 with its first four satellites, but needs a six-satellite constellation to provide the full suite of fixed and mobile broadband services. A failure of one of the current satellites would shut down the commercial service, creating an urgency at SES and O3b for the second launch.

O3b Chief Executive Steve Collar said the next four satellites, which were pulled from the Arianespace launch manifest last year once the hardware defect became known, will be shipped to Europe’s Guiana Space Center, on the northeast coast of South America, by early April.

SES has enlisted the aid of the Luxembourg government to battle the European Commission for priority access to the Europeanized Russian Soyuz launch vehicle ahead of the two Galileo positioning, navigation and timing satellites, which like the O3b spacecraft are behind schedule. 

Commission officials are anxious to get the Galileo system into orbit. Commission Vice President Antonio Tajani has been pressuring the European Space Agency and European industry to assure that six Galileo satellites are launched this year.

One official familiar with the state of the Galileo program said the next two satellites — the first of 22 under construction by a consortium led by OHB AG of Bremen, Germany — would be ready to ship to the spaceport by early April.

The O3b and Galileo passengers are thus expected to arrive at the launch site at about the same time, which will create a nightmare scenario for Evry, France-based Arianespace as it would need to disappoint one of two powerful constituencies.

Luxembourg-based SES has been making eyes at Arianespace competitor Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and its less-costly Falcon 9 rocket and has only one launch currently scheduled on the heavy-lift Ariane 5. But as the owner of a 50-satellilte fleet, SES will be launching three or four satellites per year in the coming years just to maintain its current orbital inventory. In the past two decades it has been one of Arianespace’s biggest customers.

While still a startup, a successful O3b would offer Arianespace multiple future launches beyond the two remaining on Arianespace’s Soyuz manifest. SES officials have said a successful O3b ultimately could become a constellation of 100 or more satellites if demand develops.

O3b, based in Britain’s Channel Islands, is developing a global broadband-delivery network using a constellation of satellites in an unusual 8,000-kilometer equatorial orbit.

SES, which purchased a large equity stake in O3b and was initially skeptical of its promise, has since become convinced that it can become a healthy business. SES’s stake in the company gives the Luxembourg operator a path to eventual full control of O3b.

SES Chief Executive Romain Bausch said here March 11 during the Satellite 2014 conference that the first satellites are performing better than planned, delivering 1.6 gigabits per second of throughput per beam compared to 1.2 gigabits originally forecasted.

SES spokesman Yves Feltes on March 12 declined to discuss the O3b anomaly beyond saying the company was determined to get the second group of four satellites launched as quickly as possible.

But an onboard subsystem called the centralized power supply and frequency generator unit on the spacecraft proved defective. One industry official said that the defect does not undermine the day-to-day functioning of the satellites but that the trajectory of the anomaly is not knowable. 

“You can’t model when it might overheat, and when the problem might lead to a failure of the satellite,” this official said. “It could, in fact, be in a few months, which is why the second group of satellites is so important. The risk to the business if it cannot add four healthy satellites relatively soon is real.”

One industry official said that while O3b may not have many options beyond the Europeanized Soyuz, SES has multiple options besides Arianespace to launch its core business of direct-broadcast television satellites.

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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.