The Feb. 28 failure of a Proton M/ Breeze M rocket will add pressure on the already fully booked 2006 manifests of the three main commercial-launch providers and likely reduce the revenue forecasts of one or more satellite-fleet operators that had planned launches this year, industry officials said.
The Riyadh, Saudi Arabia-based Arabsat organization, whose Arabsat-4A was the sole payload aboard the International Launch Services (ILS) Proton vehicle, is almost certain to be declared a total loss, industry officials said.
The satellite was placed into a useless orbit late Feb. 28 when the Proton vehicle’s Breeze M upper stage shut down early during its second ignition. Arabsat-4A was separated from the stage and its solar arrays opened. While it was under the control of ground teams, officials said chances were slim that it could be raised into a functioning orbit.
Arabsat announced March 1 that “it is premature to comment on the actual and future satellite status,” and an EADS Astrium official said the company was still evaluating the Arabsat-4A’s status and prospects.
McLean, Va.-based ILS and Proton builder Khrunichev said in a post-launch announcement that a Russian State Commission would be formed to determine the cause of the failure, and that a separate ILS failure review board also would be established.
It was the first failure of the Breeze M upper stage since the stage was introduced by ILS in 2000. Built by Proton prime contractor Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center of Moscow, the Breeze M began replacing Proton’s historic upper stage, the Block DM, in 2000 for Russian domestic launches. ILS began using the Breeze M stage in December 2002.
An unusual set of circumstances in the global commercial-launch market has combined to cause a shortage of launch vehicles in 2006 despite the market’s underlying oversupply.
Sea Launch Co. LLC of Long Beach, Calif.; Arianespace of Evry, France; and ILS — which operates the U.S. Atlas as well as Russian Proton rockets — all are fully booked for 2006.
The Hot Bird 8 satellite owned by Eutelsat S.A. of Paris had been the next commercial passenger scheduled for launch on the ILS Proton, with a launch tentatively scheduled for May. Eutelsat spokeswoman Vanessa O’Connor said March 1 that the company is reviewing its options in the event the Feb. 28 failure grounds Proton for more than three months or so.
The Russian space agency, Roskosmos, said March 3 that a board of inquiry into the launch failure would begin meeting March 4 and would report its conclusions by March 30. The agency said that because the next Proton flight was not scheduled before early May, “as of today it is unnecessary to suspend launches on launch vehicles of this class.”
ILS spokeswoman Michelle Lyle said the company would make no forecast about the next Proton M launch date until the cause of the failure had been determined.
Luxembourg-based SES Global’s AMC-14 satellite, which had earlier been scheduled for launch early this year, lost its place in the ILS Proton manifest because of manufacturing delays. Launch manifests are so crowded SES Global had been able to secure a new ILS Proton launch date no earlier than the third quarter of this year despite its status as the world’s biggest satellite-fleet operator and ILS’ biggest single customer.
SES Global took a beating on European stock markets the week of Feb. 20 when it told investors of the revenue consequences of the AMC-14 launch delay. Because the satellite is 100 percent booked from its first day in orbit, each month’s delay has a substantial and predictable impact on SES Global sales.
SES Global spokesman Yves Feltes said March 1 that the company in the past has been able to shift satellites from one vehicle to another and would consider doing so for AMC-14 once it has a clearer idea of how long Proton will be grounded.
One satellite industry official said one option for ILS might be for ILS to return, temporarily, to the Block DM while the Breeze M investigation continues. Block DM, built by Khrunichev competitor RSC Energia of Moscow, is regularly used by ILS’ competitor, Sea Launch.