Falcon 9 Rocket Launches Satellite for Turkmenistan and Monaco

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UPDATED April 29, at 2:24 p.m. EDT

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Florida – A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on April 27 successfully placed a telecommunications satellite jointly owned by Turkmenistan and Monaco into geostationary transfer orbit.

The satellite’s builder, Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy – which was SpaceX’s customer for the launch – said the TurkmenAlem 52E MonacoSat satellite was healthy in orbit and sending signals after separation from the Falcon 9.

Dodging cloud decks that threatened to cancel the launch, the Falcon completed its fifth launch of 2015 and its 18th since its 2010 inaugural flight, placing the 4,707-kilogram spacecraft close enough to its ideal position to permit its owners to hope for 18 years of service life.

Initially intended for launch aboard a Chinese Long March rocket, the satellite carries 38 Ku-band transponders and will operate from Monaco-licensed orbital slot of 52 degrees east, covering 90 nations in Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The spacecraft is designed to provide 11 kilowatts of power to its payload at the end of its contracted 16-year life.

In exchange for allowing Turkmenistan to use its slot, Monaco was able to secure a favorable price for purchasing 12 of the 38 transponders. SSI Monaco, the company set up to commercialize the orbital position, has struck a deal with satellite fleet operator SES of Luxembourg to commercialize Monaco’s capacity.

Ilhami Aygun, chief executive of SSI, said that his company and SES have already negotiated customers for about half the capacity, although not all have made firm commitments. He said the remaining half will be booked in short order now that the satellite is functioning in orbit, and that demand for satellite capacity in Central Asia was booming overall despite the downward pressure on prices caused by troop withdrawals from Afghanistan.

“There is really no problem on the demand side,” Aygun said of Central Asia. “There has been a Western-centric focus on the troop withdrawals that does not tell the whole story.”

Aygun said customers were not happy with the three- or four-month launch delay from Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX, the latest of which was due to a suspected helium pressurization tank issue in mid-March just two days before the planned launch.

It was more time-consuming to solve the problem on a rocket already at the launch pad, with its payload attached, than dealing with the same issue on a rocket not yet assembled and still at the production plant.

That being the case, SpaceX put a NASA space station resupply mission, whose helium issue was addressed more quickly, ahead of the TurkmenAlem 52E MonacoSat launch. The NASA mission was launched April 14.

Aygun said he was already thinking about a second satellite for the 52-degree slot, and would open negotiations with the Turkmen government about a possible co-marketing agreement for a portion of Turkmenistan’s 26 transponders.

Monaco secured its rights to the 52 degrees east slot several years ago through an agreement with SES, which placed one of its satellites at the orbital position and broadcast in the Monaco-registered frequencies. That allowed Monaco to declare to international regulators that it had respected the deadline for “bringing into use” its slot and frequency reservation.

Thales Alenia Space was able to deliver the satellite within the 33-month period ordered by the contract, which stipulated that the spacecraft would be in orbit by mid-May, despite the launcher-related delay.

The satellite builder originally contracted with China Great Wall Industry Corp. of Beijing for the launch, only to be told that some of the U.S.-built components in the satellite were no longer exportable to China.

The decision caused Thales Alenia Space to end promotion of what it called its “ITAR-free” design, referring to U.S. export restrictions covered under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations. Thales then contracted with SpaceX.

Remy Le Thuc, vice president of telecommunications projects at Thales Alenia Space, said the contract with Turkmenistan included training of Turkmen nationals in satellite operations in addition to the satellite’s construction, launch and its early operation in orbit. Thales engineers will be stationed at the newly developed satellite control center in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, for five years to support the Turkmen team.

Le Thuc said it took Thales 27 months to complete the satellite, which was ready for launch last November. It was put into storage for three months to wait out the launch delay. The launch was the sixth Falcon 9 flight to geostationary transfer orbit, the destination of most telecommunications satellites, since the first one in December 2013.