Editorial | Tenuous Access to Space

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The Jan. 31 failure of a Sea Launch rocket carrying Intelsat’s IS-27 satellite, in addition to being a huge setback for a company struggling to regain its footing following bankruptcy proceedings, suggests that commercial satellite operators are in a precarious position when it comes to getting their assets into orbit.

The failure came closely on the heels of another upper-stage glitch involving one of the commercial market’s two main workhorses, the Proton rocket, reinforcing concerns about quality control in the Russian-led space industrial complex upon which the satellite communications industry relies heavily today. The December malfunction, which left a Russian communications satellite in a low orbit, was the third in 16 months involving Proton’s upper stage — two others, in August 2011 and August 2012, resulted in the loss of three telecom satellites.

Fortunately, Sea Launch had a light manifest for the year, with only two launches, and Proton typically doesn’t stay grounded for long.

But the potential for trouble is apparent: If market conditions were a bit different the satellite industry as a whole would have a problem on its hands. As it is, Satmex of Mexico is holding its breath as it awaits the late March Proton launch — the vehicle’s return to flight — of its Satmex 8 satellite, which the cash-strapped company desperately needs to replace a primary source of revenue, the aging Satmex 5.

The optimum number of launch service providers for commercial geostationary-orbiting satellites has long been a bone of contention in the industry, pitting operators, who bemoan the dearth of choices, against the launch companies, who say there’s barely enough business as it is. The two primary providers today are Europe’s Arianespace consortium, with the Ariane 5 ECA rocket, and International Launch Services, which markets the Proton. Sea Launch, which operates the Russian-Ukrainian Zenit 3SL rocket, has had a limited presence in recent years due to a 2007 failure and subsequent bankruptcy, while relative newcomer Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) has been busy signing contracts but has yet to launch a geostationary-orbiting spacecraft.

To date the arrangement has worked reasonably well, lending credence to the launch providers’ argument that no additional capacity is needed. These companies have a bit of history on their side: The satellite telecom boom of the mid- to late 1990s attracted new launch-industry players who initially helped drive down prices but ultimately couldn’t weather the bubble’s burst.

Looking ahead, however, there doesn’t appear to be much margin for error. Reliability questions will continue to surround Proton until the vehicle has a string of successful launches, and the 2020s could see the Ariane 5 replaced by a smaller vehicle designed to loft single telecom satellites rather than two at once. The future of Sea Launch, meanwhile, which hopes to be doing four missions per year starting in 2014, is anybody’s guess.

SpaceX has answered the operators’ mail by bringing new capacity and lower prices to the marketplace, and the company’s early track record with the Falcon 9 rocket has been impressive: five successes in five tries, including a recent cargo delivery mission to the international space station. But SpaceX has yet to demonstrate its new, more-powerful Falcon 9 variant — a substantially different vehicle from the one now flying — that it will need to launch geostationary telecom satellites. The company also has yet to come anywhere close to demonstrating the launch rates necessary to keep pace with a near-term manifest that includes more than 35 missions over the next three years, including 10 for anchor customer NASA.

So while there is sufficient commercial launch capacity in theory, the actual availability of that capacity is dependent on a fair amount of good fortune in the months and years ahead. Among the critical near-term events are Proton’s return to flight and a pair of SpaceX launches scheduled for this year: the debut of the Falcon 9 v1.1 variant with more powerful engines and a larger payload fairing; and the subsequent launch, also aboard the Falcon 9 v1.1, of a geostationary satellite for SES.

A string of bad luck — a combination of delays and destructive failures, for example — could bring a return to the situation of the early 1990s, when a smaller and less mature satellite industry watched money go out the door as it awaited launch opportunities. Satellite operators would be wise to hedge their bets and prepare themselves to quickly switch to backup options in the coming years as the launch industry finds its way to a new competitive equilibrium.