Proton rocket launches the Express-AM6 satellite
Proton rocket launches the Express-AM6 satellite. Credit: Roscosmos

PARIS — Preparations for a late-November launch of a commercial telecommunications satellite aboard a Russian Proton rocket have been suspended in the face of persistent questions over whether Proton’s previous launch was as successful as claimed, industry officials said.

The Astra 2G telecommunications satellite, owned by SES of Luxembourg, was scheduled to start its planned fueling at Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in preparation for a Nov. 28 liftoff.

The fueling has been put into question, officials said, as insurance underwriters involved in the Astra 2G launch policy continue to raise issues about what happened during the Oct. 22 launch of a Russian telecommunications satellite.

“Underwriters’ faith in Russian hardware in general, and in Proton in particular, has been shaken,” one insurance official said. “I mean, after all, the last launch dropped the satellite 2,500 kilometers short of its destination.”

The problem with this assessment is that, to date, none of the principals that might be expected to confirm the underperformance of the Proton Breeze-M upper stage has done so. Soon after the Oct. 22 launch, Proton builder Khrunichev Space Center of Moscow shipped the next Breeze-M to the Baikonur spaceport to begin preparing the Astra 2G launch.

Proton’s commercial marketer, International Launch Services of Reston, Virginia, said that based on the information it had, the launch was nominal. The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, which in the past has been forthright about launch failures, said the Express-AM6 satellite was separated “in accordance with the flight plan.” But Roscosmos added that the drop-off point was “somewhat different than planned.”

ISS Reshetnev, the satellite’s builder, made no mention of a bad orbit, saying the satellite is in good health. But Reshetnev did say the satellite would not be in its final position until July. A previous statement from the company had said operations would start in early 2015.

The Russian Satellite Communications Co. (RSCC), which owns the satellite, also said it is healthy and expected to operate for the planned 15 years, but the company declined to say whether its in-service date of July was far later than planned.

SES and Inmarsat have both said that as far as they are concerned, the launch was OK and ILS will proceed with its scheduled launches. Inmarsat had penciled in a late-January date for the first of the two Global Xpress satellites it has remaining in the ILS backlog. The second launch would occur in the spring in this scenario.

In a Nov. 7 response to SpaceNews inquiries, ILS said:

“As is done for every mission, we work with the ensuing customer to answer any and all questions that they and their insurers have in regards to the performance of the preceding mission. To that end, we have been working with the next customer, SES … to answer all questions related to the Express-AM6 mission, which was reported by all parties involved in the launch to be a success.

“We are in the process of answering some additional questions from the customer and insurers, and we will continue to work with them until all questions are answered. The launch campaigns at Baikonur continue to proceed on schedule.”

The Oct. 22 launch of the Express-AM6 satellite was the second since a Proton failure in May. The vehicle has had a poor record in the past three years, although almost all of its failures have occurred on missions for Russian government or government-owned entities like RSCC.

For reasons no one has been able to explain, commercial missions contracted through ILS have succeeded, even though they use the same Proton M rocket with the Breeze-M upper stage as is used for government missions.

RSCC and ILS, responding to questions about the Express-AM6 launch, said part of the confusion was due to the fact that AM6 carries a xenon-electric propulsion system designed to save weight compared with chemical propellant. Like most electric-propulsion systems used to raise a satellite’s orbit following launch, the AM6 propulsion system takes several months to accomplish its task, rather than a couple of weeks for satellites with chemical propellant.

Using this reasoning, RSCC said it was known in advance that AM6 would take longer than usual to reach orbit.

The May Proton failure added to the ILS launch bottleneck. Several ILS customers, notably SES and Inmarsat of London — the latter awaiting two launches to begin commercial service of its Global Xpress mobile broadband service — are anxious to get their satellites in service.

Delayed launches were one reason SES was obliged to revise downward its 2014 revenue forecast. The company said it hoped to generate at least some revenue from Astra 2G in 2014 despite later-than-expected launch.

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.