ILS Looks To Rebound from Tough 2014

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PARIS — International Launch Services, forced into a bystander’s role in 2014 as rivals Arianespace and SpaceX swept up almost all the commercial satellite launch contracts, expects to be back in the mix in 2015, ILS President Phil Slack said Jan. 8.

Phil Slack. Credit: ILS
ILS President Phil Slack said the three circumstances that hampered the company in 2014 — Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and related sanctions, the Russian Proton rocket’s shaky recent reliability record and the market’s turn to lighter satellites — should ease a bit in 2015. Credit: ILS

In an interview, Slack said the three disparate negatives that hampered Reston, Virginia-based ILS in 2014 — Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and related sanctions, the Russian Proton rocket’s shaky recent reliability record and the market’s turn to lighter satellites — should ease a bit in 2015.

In addition, he said, ILS has launch openings in 2016 that may not be available at Arianespace of Evry, France, or at Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX.

“We have had a busy federal [Russian government] market for Proton in the past year and we are full for 2015,” Slack said. “But we have commercial opportunities in 2016 and several openings in 2017 as well. By our count, SpaceX has a manifest of some 18 launches in 2015 and 15-16 in 2016, so it’s a full manifest. Ariane has said it is full through 2016 and could be fully booked into 2017.”

SpaceX has said it is capable of conducting more than one Falcon 9 launch each month, although it managed only six campaigns in 2014. Arianespace has said it its upper position — reserved for heavier satellites for which Arianespace and Proton compete — is filled through 2016 and into 2017.

Slack said ILS has been authorized to sell one commercial launch in 2016 aboard Russia’s new Angara 5 rocket, which successfully completed a demonstration flight, directly into geostationary orbit, in December.

Angara’s home base is expected to be Russia’s Vostochny Cosmodrome, now under construction. But a launch from northern Russia’s Plesetsk Cosmodrome, where the demonstration flight occurred, in 2016 is available to carry a telecommunications satellite weighing up to 5,400 kilograms, Slack said.

It remains unclear when Russia will replace Proton with Angara. Slack said he did not expect regular commercial Angara launches from Vostochny until around 2020.

The success of Arianespace and SpaceX in 2014 is due in part to their focus on medium-weight satellites less than 5,500 kilograms, which is below ILS’s core market.

Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel said during a Sept. 6 press briefing that Arianespace’s backlog a year ago was two-thirds larger satellites and one-third smaller satellites designed for the Ariane 5 rocket’s lower position. But with the dominance of smaller satellites on the market in 2014, he said, the backlog is now 55 percent larger satellites and 45 percent smaller.

Slack said ILS’s view of the market is that more large satellites will be seeking launch services in 2015.

Russia’s incursion into Ukraine in early 2014 shook Proton’s commercial customer base, but as the months passed it became clear that the U.S. government was not going to block shipping licenses for satellites heading to Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to prepare for ILS launches. Slack said ILS in 2014 secured 40 licenses related to future commercial launches and that U.S. and European sanctions show no signs of upsetting ILS’s business.

Proton’s reliability record in recent years has forced ILS customers to pay substantially higher insurance premiums than do Ariane and SpaceX customers. But the launch failures have disproportionately affected Proton government launches and not ILS.

Slack said ILS’s review of the failures has turned up a couple that ILS likely would have avoided because of its quality assurance problem, but others would have occurred even under the ILS banner. He said Khrunichev’s new chief executive, Andrey Kalinovsky, has a history of installing quality control measures at aircraft builder Sukhoi and has made a priority of returning Proton reliability.

For 2015, Slack said ILS plans to conduct five or six commercial launches, with the Russian government launching five or six missions of its own. ILS’s first launch, of London-based Inmarsat’s Global Xpress satellite, is scheduled for Jan. 30. After that will follow two government Proton launches.