Proton Technical Issues Postpone ILS Launch of Astra 2G

by

UPDATED at 1:51 p.m. EDT

PARIS — The planned Nov. 28 launch of a Russian Proton rocket carrying the commercial Astra 2G telecommunications satellite has been scrubbed following communications issues with the rocket’s Breeze-M upper stage, industry officials and the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, said Nov. 26.

The rocket will be removed from the launch pad and its upper stage taken off, and the Astra 2G will be removed for safekeeping pending inspection of the Breeze-M.

Roscosmos said a Russian state commission decided to halt the launch, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, following unspecified command-and-control anomalies on Breeze-M.

International Launch Services of Reston, Virginia, which is owned by Proton prime contractor Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center of Moscow and is in charge of selling commercial Proton launches, said Nov. 26 the upper-stage component in question was a gyro.

An industry official said the gyro would be replaced on the same Breeze-M stage and that there would be no need to find a replacement stage. The official said the launch delay likely will be no more than two weeks or so.

Yves Feltes, spokesman for Luxembourg-based SES, said the Astra 2G satellite, built by Airbus Defence and Space, is in good health and that the company would await the conclusions of the tests on Breeze-M before announcing a new launch date.

“We are in control of the situation with respect to Astra 2G,” Feltes said. “Astra 2G is safe and there are no issues with it. It will be removed from the rocket for additional checks on Breeze-M because the Breeze-M did not correctly respond to commands sent to it while the rocket was on the launch pad.”

The delay is the latest in a series of problems affecting Russia’s heavy-lift Proton rocket in recent years, which have pushed up the cost of insurance premiums and given its commercial competitor, Arianespace of Europe, room to raise its prices for heavier communications satellites.

ILS in recent weeks has been battling widespread industry opinion that the Oct. 22 Proton launch of a Russian telecommunication satellite — a launch not handled by ILS but rather as part of Russia’s federal space program — featured an underperformance by Breeze-M.

That satellite, the Express-AM6 owned by Russian Satellite Communications Co.  of Moscow, will take longer than expected to reach its final operating orbit but is otherwise healthy.

SES and its insurers had raised questions about the Oct. 22 launch but ultimately were reassured that whatever the issues were, they had been resolved, industry officials said. Plans for the Nov. 28 launch were permitted to proceed.

Astra 2G’s scheduled late-November launch would have been too late to generate much revenue in 2014 for SES, and in any event the satellite is mainly a replacement for SES’s direct-broadcast television fleet at the 28.2-28.5 degrees east longitude orbital slots. But it does have 10 transponders for expanded commercial services beyond its replacement duties.

Astra 2G also includes a military X- and Ka-band payload that the Luxembourg government wanted to use to meet a regulatory deadline to preserve an unspecified orbital slot for a planned military telecommunications service. Astra 2G would be operated at that slot for the regulatory minimum of three months before moving to its intended commercial orbital position.

The Luxembourg government has said it must occupy the orbital position in question, which it did not disclose, by the end of the year or risk forfeiting its rights there.

International regulators in the past have been indulgent when it comes to slight delays in “bringing into use” a given orbital position and associated broadcast frequencies, especially when it is clear that the satellite has been built and is awaiting launch.

Whether regulators would exercise similar leniency for Luxembourg given that Astra 2G is not the satellite that Luxembourg calls Govsat but rather a temporary placeholder is unclear.

One industry official said there are available in orbit satellites carrying X- and military-Ka-band transponders that are nearing retirement and could be leased by Luxembourg to meet the bringing-into-use requirements.

The Proton rocket’s near-term commercial manifest includes Moscow-based Gazprom Space Systems’ Yamal-401 telecommunications satellite, which had been slated for a Dec. 12 launch; and London-based Inmarsat’s Inmarsat 5F2 GlobalXpress satellite, which had been planned for late January.

Inmarsat had been anxious to see the second of its two GlobalXpress satellites in orbit, with a third planned on Proton for the spring, to start its worldwide GlobalXpress broadband service.