FAA Forecast Sees Commercial Geostationary Launches Peaking in 2012

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WASHINGTON — Commercial launches of satellites to orbits other than geostationary orbit will average 13 per year through 2020, with a peak of 18 launches in 2015 driven by deployment of the Iridium Next satellite communications constellation, according to new projections by a government-industry group.

The number of commercial satellites launched to geostationary orbit, meanwhile, is expected to spike from 18 this year to 26 next year, according to the draft report. But launches of geostationary orbiting satellites are expected to taper off and then remain flat for the remainder of the decade.

The draft commercial launch forecast, unveiled May 11, was prepared by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. The office, which releases launch forecasts annually, was aided by an industry group known as the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee.

 In addition to the Iridium Next satellites — to be deployed in batches of eight aboard Falcon 9 rockets — launches of crew and cargo to the international space station will drive the market for commercial, low Earth orbit (LEO) missions in the coming years, the report draft says.

The projections are preliminary, with a final report expected in June.

“Commercial crew transportation and resupply of the [international space station] are planned for vehicles that are yet to be proven,” the report says, adding that technical and financial issues could delay those launches. New and emerging markets for satellite payloads could also alter the predictions.

The number of commercial LEO launches could increase in 2016 and for years afterward if the market for space tourism emerges, and companies start sending cargo payloads to the Moon, according to the report. Among the companies seeking to tap the nascent space tourism market is Bigelow Aerospace of North Las Vegas, Nev., which is planning a commercial crew habitat in orbit.

Crew and cargo deliveries to the space station are expected to account for 60 launches through the end of the decade, or 46 percent of the total commercial launches to non-geostationary orbit, the draft report states.

Commercial telecommunications satellites would comprise the largest segment of the commercial LEO payload total — 118, or 43 percent — launched through 2020, the report said. However, due to plans to launch several of these satellites at a time, this market would account for only 19 launches, or 15 percent of the total.

“All upcoming launches for the Iridium, Globalstar, Orbcomm, and O3b fleets are expected to be multi-manifested,” the report says.

The commercial telecommunications constellations planned in the next decade fall into three categories:

  • Narrowband or little low Earth orbit (LEO) systems, for data communications such as email, paging, messaging for automated meter reading, tracking of fleet vehicles, and other comparable tasks. Orbcomm, which is planning to replenish its existing satellite fleet, falls into this category.
  • Wideband or big LEO systems, like Globalstar and Iridium, which provide mobile telephone and data services. Iridium and Globalstar are in the process of replacing their first-generation constellations.
  • Broadband, for high-speed data transfers using Ka- and Ku-band links. O3b, a planned constellation of medium Earth orbit satellites serving the equatorial regions, falls into this category.

The draft report says 14 commercial remote sensing satellites will be deployed on 10 launches through the end of the decade.

The report says a total of 205 commercial geostationary orbiting satellites will be deployed on 156 launches between 2011 and 2020. Geostationary orbit, 36,000 kilometers above the equator, is the operating location for most communications satellites.

Next year will see 26 commercial geostationary satellites deployed via 21 launches, the report says, but those numbers are expected to dip to 23 satellites via 18 launches in 2013. For the remainder of the decade, an average of 19 to 20 geostationary satellites will be launched annually aboard 14 to 15 rockets, the report says.