The builder of the Proton-M
launch vehicle has begun tests of a newly designed gas duct to replace the model that failed March 15 and will announce a return to flight date and an updated manifest by the end of June, according to the president of the company that sells
Proton launch services worldwide.


Frank McKenna, president of McLean, Va.-based International Launch Services (ILS), said in a May 29 interview that customers and insurance underwriters are scheduled to be briefed in mid-June on the post-failure redesign by ILS and Proton’s manufacturer, Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center of Moscow.


In an unrelated announcement May 29, ILS said Khrunichev had purchased an additional
51 percent of the shares
in ILS from Space Transport Inc. of the British Virgin Islands, a privately held company that had acquired its ILS shares
in October 2006 from Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md.


Industry officials had said Mario Lemme, a longtime ILS board member and owner of Space Transport Inc., had been seeking to exit the business for several months and had approached several potential bidders to gauge their interest.


McKenna said the U.S. and Russian regulatory approvals for the sale have been received, and that ILS will continue to be registered as a U.S. company and the exclusive Proton commercial sales agent.


McKenna declined to disclose the terms of the sale, but said that since Lemme purchased Lockheed Martin’s shares in late 2006, ILS has met or exceeded its business objectives. The company said it has a launch backlog of 22 orders “totaling nearly $2 billion,” which would mean around $90 million per future launch.


“The business has been successful for the last couple of years and that created an opportune time for the next logical step to occur,” McKenna said of the Khrunichev purchase.


Commercial-launch prices worldwide have risen in the past two years on the continued rebound in the market for commercial telecommunications satellites and the de facto cap on supply owing to the fact that the U.S. Delta and Atlas rockets have focused on the U.S. government market, leaving Proton, the Russian-Ukrainian-built Sea Launch rockets and the European Ariane 5 rocket as the only regular bidders for commercial launches of large geostationary-orbiting satellites. China’s launch vehicles compete only rarely on the commercial market because of a U.S government ban on having satellites with U.S. parts launched from China. With its newly acquired shares, Khrunichev will increase its ILS ownership to 83 percent. The remaining 17 percent is owned by RSC Energia of Korolev, Russia, which builds the Proton upper stage used often for Russian government missions but no longer used for ILS commercial launches.

It was the Khrunichev-built Breeze-M upper stage that failed March 15 when a gas duct ruptured after exposure to high temperatures. The rupture occurred 32 minutes into what was supposed to have been a burn lasting 34 minutes and 26 seconds.


The AMC-14 telecommunications satellite owned by SES of Luxembourg was left in a useless orbit. The satellite has been declared a total loss.


McKenna said testing of a new design of the gas duct will continue at Khrunichev to determine its exact resistance to erosion under prolonged exposure to high temperatures. To continue lifting heavy telecommunications satellites – ILS’ contracts over the past year are for satellites weighing 5,500 kilograms on average – the Proton Breeze-M upper stage must be allowed to burn for long periods.

McKenna said introducing a new gas duct design into the Proton upper stage will not require that all the surrounding hardware be re-qualified as a consequence. “The people who have seen this agree that it’s a straightforward piece of piping. It’s not the type of [component whose redesign] has multiple” ramifications for the rest of the stage.


McKenna said the next launch of the Breeze-M stage would be an ILS commercial mission, currently scheduled to be the Inmarsat 4 F3 mobile communications satellite owned by Inmarsat of London.