PARIS — Russia’s largest satellite operator said it is revamping the way it purchases satellites and rockets to widen its choice of suppliers — especially launch vehicles.
Moscow-based Russian Satellite Communications Co. (RSCC), whose financial performance in the past two years has been hobbled by multiple launch and in-orbit satellite failures, said that by 2016 it will bundle satellite and rocket orders through in-orbit delivery contracts with satellite builders. In other words, the satellite manufacturer, not RSCC, would select the rocket.
RSCC Chief Financial Officer Dennis Pivnyuk said the new procedure will not necessarily move RSCC away from Russia’s principal commercial launcher, the heavy-lift Proton vehicle.
Recent failures have affected RSCC and the Russian government more than any other Proton customers. Neither has had much choice in the matter as missions that are part of the Russian federal space program — including commercial telecommunications satellites like RSCC’s — are automatically placed on Proton.
Addressing the World Satellite Business Week conference, organized by Euroconsult, Pivnyuk said Sept. 8 that RSCC would judge future proposals on their financial, technical and schedule merits without entering directly into the launcher decision.
RSCC and its smaller competitor, fleet operator Gazprom Space Systems, have purchased Western-built satellites in the past, as well as satellites using Russian contractors working with European, Canadian and Japanese satellite builders.
But selecting a non-Russian launcher is another matter. RSCC has been barred, in effect, from going outside of Proton. Gazprom, on the one occasion when it tried to order a launch aboard Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket, was pressured to return to the Russian vehicle.
Pivnyuk said RSCC itself will not be evaluating other launchers.
“It will not be our job to specifically look at other launch vehicles,” Pivnyuk said. “We rather will select from proposals with the satellite and the launcher. Whatever the best bid is we will select. We hope in this way to become more flexible.”
RSCC’s Express-AM4R satellite was lost in a May launch failure of Proton. The satellite was designed to replace the Express-AM4, which was lost in an August 2011 launch failure that placed the satellite into a useless orbit.
Proton is expected to return to flight Sept. 28 with the launch of a military spacecraft. RSCC’s Express-AM6 is next on the manifest, and the company is tentatively planning for a mid-October launch.
The company has planned three more Proton launches — subject to the vehicle’s successful return to operations — in 2015.
It is for follow-on satellites that RSCC will adopt the in-orbit-delivery contract method.
European industry officials said it would be difficult for non-Russian rockets to compete with Proton, even when embedded in in-orbit-delivery contracts, given the ruble-based Proton pricing for RSCC as a government-owned entity.
But these officials said their understanding of the Russian government’s emerging space policy is that both Proton and the Russian-Ukrainian Zenit-3SL rocket — which is commercialized by Sea Launch AG of Switzerland but owned by Russia’s Energia space-hardware builder — will be maintained.
Sea Launch currently operates from international waters with a home port of Long Beach, California. Switching the home port to eastern Russia and otherwise operating it as a Russian, not international, vehicle could open the Russian domestic market to Zenit.