Balky Satellite Solar Panel Threatens Telesat’s Growth Plans in S. America

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UPDATED May 27 at 5:40pm

PARIS — Satellite fleet operator Telesat’s plan to capture the growing demand for satellite bandwidth in Latin America with a big new spacecraft over the region is at risk of being derailed by a satellite defect that bears a striking resemblance to a problem on the satellite Telesat was seeking to replace.

Industry officials agreed that the deployment failure of a solar array on the Telstar 14R/Estrela do Sul 2 spacecraft launched May 21 appears to be a replay of the same problem that crippled the original Telstar 14/Estrela do Sul satellite following its launch in January 2004.

That failure cut the satellite’s transponder capacity and its lifetime in half, to seven years, and resulted in then-owner Loral Space and Communications’ filing an insurance claim that was settled for $205 million.

Both satellites were built by Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif. Industry officials said the 2004 failure was not fully explained by a board of inquiry set up to investigate it. The general conclusion was that the problem occurred while the satellite was under the rocket’s fairing.

Sea Launch Co. of Long Beach, Calif., which launched the satellite in 2004, vigorously protested any implication that its rocket was at fault, and insurers declined to blame the rocket. Instead, they offered several possible explanations, including a workmanship error on the satellite that made it unduly vulnerable to the stress of a launch.

“There were three or four possible causes listed,” said one industry official familiar with the inquiry into the 2004 defect. “No one was really satisfied with the results, and the fact is that Sea Launch resumed flights without a delay, and Loral resumed satellite deliveries without a delay, and both performed well. But just because whatever happened occurred under the fairing doesn’t mean the rocket was the cause.”

Ottawa, Canada-based Telesat assumed control of Loral’s satellite fleet in 2007 following Loral’s purchase of Telesat, with Canada’s PSP Investments, for $3.4 billion.

Telesat has since solidified its position as the world’s fourth-largest commercial satellite fleet operator when measured by revenue, and it has reduced the debt load placed upon it following the 2007 purchase.

In 2009, Telesat decided to reinvest in Latin America when that region, and especially Brazil, began showing signs of sustainable economic growth. It ordered a replacement for the original Telstar 14/Estrela do Sul satellite through its Brazilian subsidiary, which owns the concession from the Brazilian government for the orbital slot at 63 degrees west.

But the new satellite would be much bigger, with 58 equivalent Ku-band transponders when measured in 36-megahertz increments. That compares with 41 transponders on the original Telstar 14/Estrela do Sul.

Because of the solar array deployment problem, flying the original satellite has burned much more fuel than would be the case if both solar arrays had fully extended. Telesat, in a submission to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in March, estimated the original Telstar 14/Estrela do Sul would need to be retired in 2011, a year later than original estimates.

The usable capacity on the original Telstar 14/Estrela do Sul has also increased from the early estimates. Telesat said in its SEC filing that the spacecraft has the equivalent of nearly 32 transponders available. Its replacement would thus nearly double Telesat’s service offering in one of the world’s hottest satellite bandwidth markets, giving Telesat’s owners an additional sales argument as they seek to sell the company to a private-equity investor, or take it public through an initial stock offering.

With Brazil and South American bandwidth demand in high gear, other satellite operators, including Star One of Brazil, Hispasat of Spain and SES of Luxembourg, are preparing additional satellites to be placed over the region.

That put Telesat in a position of strength as Space Systems/Loral announced that not only would it deliver the satellite on time, it would be ahead of schedule. In a May 5 conference call with investors, Telesat Chief Executive Daniel S. Goldberg said Telstar 14/Estrela do Sol was just about filled given the strong demand in Latin America, and that Telstar 14R’s arrival would enable Telesat to pick up new business.

The satellite was launched aboard an International Launch Services (ILS) Proton rocket from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. ILS officials said they have checked the telemetry data they have received from the launch and that nothing occurred that could have caused a problem with the satellite.

In response to Space News inquiries, Loral on May 26 said its preliminary finding is that the recent problem bears little similarity to the 2004 defect except the fact that, in both cases, one solar array failed to fully deploy.

Telesat, in a May 25 joint statement with Loral, said the company hopes the new satellite will provide “at a minimum” the same level of service as the satellite it is replacing. Loral and Telesat said they are studying ways to maximize the new satellite’s service life. Telstar 14R/Estrela do Sol 2 is insured for $260 million.

Still unclear is what effect the problem will have on several other Loral-built satellites scheduled for launch in the coming months, almost all of them on ILS Proton rockets. Of most immediate concern is the ViaSat-1 consumer broadband satellite owned by ViaSat Corp. of Carlsbad, Calif.

ViaSat is under pressure to launch the satellite, which has already suffered delays, to provide new capacity to its WildBlue consumer broadband division. WildBlue is faced with a bandwidth shortage at a time when its direct competitor, the HughesNet service provided by Hughes Communications of Germantown, Md., has room to spare on its Spaceway 3 satellite.

“It is almost certain that Loral will want to check its paperwork on the [Telstar 14R/Estrela do Sul] satellite before delivering any more spacecraft,” one insurance official said. “If that means that a satellite has to wait a few more weeks before launch, then that’s how it will be. What is certain is that this time around the insurers are going to demand a complete and thorough review of what went wrong, and a finding of a definitive cause for what happened. There’s too much money at stake.”