USAF Payload Delays SES-2 launch

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PARIS — Satellite fleet operator SES on May 12 said the launch of its SES-2 telecommunications spacecraft, which carries an experimental infrared sensor for the U.S. Air Force, has slipped again and will not occur before August. SES also said another one of its satellites has been delayed by late delivery of a Kazakh satellite sharing the same launch.

Luxembourg-based SES said neither satellite’s delay will have an effect on the company’s 2011 revenue. Both delays appear to be examples of the down side to sharing satellite missions.

SES-2 is under construction by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va. In addition to its main mission, the spacecraft will be carrying the Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload (CHIRP) sensor, built by Science Applications International Corp. of McLean, Va., under a $65 million contract with SES signed in June 2008.

CHIRP represented the first time that the U.S. Air Force, which is the world’s biggest government space agency, agreed to place a secondary payload on a commercial telecommunications spacecraft. As such, it has been closely watched by Air Force and commercial satellite industry officials as a forerunner for what many believe could be a large market for government hosted payloads aboard commercial satellites.

The critical design review for CHIRP, which features a telescope that can image up to a quarter of the Earth in four spectral bands, was completed in March 2009. Program officials said then that the mission was an example of how a government agency can order and oversee space hardware construction fast enough to respect commercial market deadlines.

But CHIRP has encountered delays that have seen its launch slip from 2010 to early 2011 and now to August on a European Ariane 5 ECA rocket

In a conference call, SES Chairman Romain Bausch said the development delays, which have been caused by CHIRP-related issues, appear to be at an end. He said SES is confident the satellite will be ready for the third-quarter launch date.

The SES-2 satellite that is hosting CHIRP is principally designed for replacement capacity over North America. Unlike several other SES satellites under construction, it will not provide the company with revenue growth once it is placed into service.

The same is true for the SES-3 spacecraft, also under construction by Orbital Sciences. This satellite has also fallen behind schedule, but not because of a problem at Orbital or with a hosted payload. In SES-3’s case, the problem has been delays in construction of Kazakhstan’s KazSat-2 telecommunications satellite, being built by Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center of Moscow. SES-3 and KazSat-2 are scheduled to share an International Launch Services (ILS) Proton rocket launch. Booked as a co-passenger, SES-3 is obliged to wait until KazSat-2 is ready to go.

SES said in its May 12 financial report that it expects SES-3 to be launched by October.

The company has scheduled the launch of seven satellites this year, including its 23-transponder share of the Yahsat 1A satellite owned by Yahsat of the United Arab Emirates and launched April 22. Of the six others, only the QuetzSat-1 satellite is crucial to SES’s forecast of 3 percent revenue growth in 2011 and an average annual growth of 4 to 5 percent between 2010 and 2012.

QuetzSat-1, under construction by Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif., has been fully leased by EchoStar of Englewood, Colo., to provide direct broadcast television, mainly to the Dish Mexico service. Because EchoStar’s lease takes effect the day the satellite is operational, any delay in its launch would cost SES dearly, especially since QuetzSat-1 will be adding 32 new transponders to SES’s in-orbit capacity. It is central to the company’s growth plans this year. QuetzSat-1 is scheduled for launch this summer aboard an ILS Proton rocket.

Bausch said SES should know by late December whether early indications of the success of the company’s HD Plus high-definition television platform in Germany will be confirmed. Up to now, two-thirds of those purchasing the HD Plus card for their television set-top boxes to get high-definition programming via satellite have signed up for paid subscriptions, at 50 euros ($72) per year.

As of March 31, HD Plus had 114,000 paid subscriptions from this early group of users whose one-year free trial has already ended. Another 655,000 users are still benefiting from the free trial. A large percentage of them signed up for the holidays in December 2010, making December 2011 a month in which the success or HD Plus likely will be known.

SES Chief Financial Officer Andrew Browne said during the conference call that SES booked about 2 million euros in revenue from HD Plus in the three months ending March 31. The company splits the 50-euro subscription revenue with the television broadcasters whose programs are carried by HD Plus under a formula that Bausch declined to detail.

 

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