PARIS — Mobile satellite services operator Inmarsat, which has more riding on launches this year aboard Russian Proton rockets than any other company, on May 7 said it had been given “confirmations” that its two launches would not be delayed by U.S. sanctions on Russia.
Several commercial fleet operators have said their requests for licenses to ship their satellites to Russian spaceports have met with silence from U.S. government authorities trying to determine how far the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama wants to go in punishing Russia for its incursion into Ukraine.
These operators have maintained a stoic public face on the issue, saying they are confident that their launches will occur as scheduled this year. In a May 7 conference call with investors, Inmarsat Chief Executive Rupert Pearce went further than that.
“Specifically, we reiterate today that we do not believe current trade restrictions with Russia arising from the Ukraine situation will have any impact on our launch plans,” Pearce said. “This belief is supported by independent advice and from confirmations we’ve been given. Commercial and state space programs are an area of high international cooperation and interdependence with strong mutual interests to maintain launch programs.”
Pearce said a further heightening of tensions with Russia over Ukraine could toughen the existing sanctions regime, “which might affect our plans.” But “we continue to believe that there are good reasons why further restrictions would not target the use of Proton launch vehicles from Kazakhstan,” he said.
Inmarsat declined to disclose the source and nature of confirmations that Inmarsat’s Global Xpress satellites would not face any sanctions-related shipment delays, or whether these launches — of considerable interest to the U.S. Defense Department — have received special licensing treatment.
Shipment of the second of the three Global Xpress satellites — the first was launched on a Russian Proton rocket in December — to the Russian-run Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan is “imminent,” Pearce said — “in the next few weeks if not in the next few days.”
London-based Inmarsat’s $1.4 billion Global Xpress program will offer both military and commercial Ka-band broadband links from three satellites in geostationary orbit. A fourth satellite is being built as a ground spare for the moment.
All four satellites are built by Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, California. Boeing has invested in Global Xpress with a take-or-pay contract under which Boeing will market Global Xpress to the U.S. government.
The three launches were purchased through International Launch Services of Reston, Virginia, which markets the heavy-lift Proton vehicle to commercial customers.
The first Global Xpress satellite is now in commercial testing at 62.7 degrees east longitude over the Indian Ocean. Pearce said these tests, which industry officials have said include U.S. special forces in the Middle East and Africa, began on May 5.
Pearce said the testing has begun with U.S. government agencies he described as “thought leaders” that would validate that Global Xpress works as described and pave the way for wider U.S. government use of the system.
Global Xpress is designed as a global mobile Ka-band broadband system, meaning having all three satellites in orbit and providing global coverage outside the polar regions is key to its business plan.
Pearce said Inmarsat’s end-to-end network is perhaps the highest-security infrastructure among commercial satellite operators and is MAC-1 compliant, a U.S. Department of Defense classification that means the network can handle sensitive operational data and meets reliability requirements.
One reason that U.S. military forces are able to test Global Xpress before even the first satellite has entered service is that this customer category doesn’t need a global end-to-end network.
“They want to buy bandwidth,” Pearce said. “They want to buy capabilities and they want to run their own end-to-end network and waveforms over our capabilities. So it enables faster starts than we would otherwise have with commercial customers.”
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