The German-Russian Eurockot commercial-launch company is betting that it has at least three more years to anchor itself in the small-satellite launch market before Europe’s government-sponsored Vega vehicle arrives as a European government-backed competitor.
Matthias Oehm, chief executive of Eurockot Launch Services GmbH, said the company’s business plan also assumes that either Globalstar or Iridium — the two companies that operate low-orbiting satellite constellations to provide global mobile telecommunications services — will build a full second-generation constellation. Both constellations are within Eurockot’s target market.
Bremen, Germany-based Eurockot expects to resume launches this spring following the October failure that destroyed the Cryosat Earth observation satellite, owned by the European Space Agency (ESA).
The failure, coupled with what Oehm admits was an embarrassing customer- and public-relations fumble by Russian mission managers, came just weeks before ESA governments were to decide whether to adopt a firm buy-European policy for future ESA satellites.
For ESA, a European launcher means one of the three vehicles that have received ESA government development funding — the heavy-lift Ariane 5; the medium-lift Russian Soyuz vehicle, to be operated from Europe’s French Guiana launch site; and the Italian-led Vega.
Soyuz and especially Vega are Eurockot competitors. Soyuz and Vega are scheduled to begin operations from the European launch facility in Kourou beginning in late 2008 or early 2009.
“Things will get more difficult for us in 2010, that’s for sure,” Oehm said in an interview. “But we will wait and see what the Vega development schedule turns out to be. It’s not easy to introduce a new vehicle and no one can be sure the current dates are realistic.”
At the urging of the German government, ESA ministers in December watered down their buy-European launch policy and agreed that Eurockot’s Rockot vehicle as a legitimate backup for Vega when a backup is needed.
The three-stage Rockot, built by Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center of Moscow, is based on the SS-19 strategic missile and operated from northern Russia’s Plesetsk Cosmodrome.
The vehicle was adapted by Khrunichev with financing provided by EADS Space Transportation, prime contractor for the Ariane 5 rocket. EADS Space Transportation holds a 51-percent share of Eurockot. Khrunichev has a 49-percent stake.
Eurockot officials say that around 140 SS-19 launch vehicles remain in stock and could be transformed into Rockot space-launch vehicles. Peter Freeborn, Eurockot’s marketing manager, said Khrunichev has guaranteed that Rockot vehicles will be available at least until 2014 — “and we expect to get a prolongation, meaning we will remain in business until 2020,” Freeborn said.
The October failure was Eurockot’s seventh launch — one government mission and six commercial launches — and its first failure.
A Russian government board of inquiry in December concluded that the failure was due to a programming error that mistakenly timed the pressurization of Rockot’s third stage to occur after the rocket’s second stage had completed its work and shut down.
Because the third-stage pressurization command was not given, the vehicle’s second-stage engine was not shut down as scheduled.
The inquiry concluded that the command to shut down the second-stage engine was correctly sent, but that the rocket’s computer did not follow the order because the third-stage pressurization sequence was not completed.
The second-stage engine continued to burn until its fuel was out, causing the vehicle to deviate from its expected flight pattern. Sensing the anomaly, the on board computer automatically terminated the mission. The Rockot’s second stage, third stage and still-attached Cryosat satellite fell into the Lincoln Sea, near the North Pole.
“It’s a case of somebody punching in false mission parameters, which were not verified,” said Mark Kinnersley, Eurockot’s technical director. “Eurockot and the Russian members of the board of inquiry believe we fully understand what happened and how to correct the problem in the future.”
Kinnersley said Eurockot also will station one of its own team members at the Russian command center for future launches to avoid repeating the Cryosat mission broadcast, which informed the public and ESA that the mission was progressing normally long after the failure occurred.