Editorial | Welcome Back, Proton

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Successful Return to Flight Bodes Well for Industry

The commercial satellite telecommunications industry watched with bated breath as Russia’s Proton rocket, returning to flight after a May failure, lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan Aug. 28 carrying Inmarsat’s third Global Xpress Ka-band communications satellite. A huge collective sigh of relief could almost be heard 15 hours and 31 minutes later, when the rocket’s upper stage released the satellite into its proper super-synchronous transfer orbit, concluding a successful mission.

The companies with the most at stake in the launch were those directly involved: Proton manufacturer Khrunichev Space Center; International Launch Services, which markets the vehicle commercially; and Inmarsat, which has invested some $1.2 billion in the three-satellite Global Xpress constellation. Khrunichev has struggled in recent years with quality control on the longtime government and commercial workhorse, which has failed six times since 2010. ILS, despite the fact all but the most recent failure occurred on Russian government missions, has been hammered by Proton’s reliability issues, which have allowed competitors Arianespace and SpaceX to gobble up nearly all of the available business in 2014 and so far in 2015. For Inmarsat, which took what many viewed as a risk in selecting Proton for all three Global Xpress launches, the success means the company can finally roll out its long-anticipated global broadband service, albeit a year later than planned.

But the mission also held importance for the broader commercial satellite industry, which obviously depends on reliable and available launch services. The Proton mishaps, coupled with the June failure of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket on a resupply mission to the international space station, have left several satellite operators in a potentially costly holding pattern. With Arianespace and SpaceX heavily booked in 2016 and into 2017, and Sea Launch fading from the commercial-market picture, these companies have limited options, especially in the near-term. United Launch Alliance’s very reliable Atlas 5 rocket, marketed by Lockheed Martin, has been able to provide some relief, but its availability is limited and its price tag is high.

Industry has long debated the appropriate number of players in the commercial geostationary launch market: As far as satellite operators are concerned, the more the merrier, while some launch companies have questioned the sustainability of having more than two primary providers. In reality, of course, the playing field is shaped as much by geopolitical as market forces; governments provide foundational support for the leading commercial satellite launchers ­­— it’s telling that Sea Launch has no government backing or business — and, as the United States has demonstrated, can freeze certain countries or vehicles out of the market.

Regardless of what constitutes a healthy number, it’s safe to say the market has missed having Proton as a reliable and readily available launch option. Falcon 9’s grounding, possibly until November, has only reinforced the notion that timely access to space can never be taken for granted.

Given what’s happened over the last five years, it likely will take a string of successful missions to restore full confidence in the Proton. But Aug. 28 was a fine start.