Launch Gives Africa’s Rascom Consortium New Lease on Life

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PONTE VEDRA, Fla. — The successful Aug. 4 launch of the Rascom-QAF 1R telecommunications satellite provides the Rascom organization with a second chance to prove itself some two-and-a-half years after its first satellite reached orbit with a fuel system leak that reduced its life to about three years and nearly forced the collapse of the 15-year Rascom project.

With Rascom-QAF 1R now safely Arianespace Launches Two Satellites, Signs Pair of Contracts”>in orbit, and with early indications of good health, Mauritius-based Rascom is able to present itself as a company with a likely 19 years of in-orbit capacity in front of it, according to preliminary post-launch calculations made by the satellite’s builder, Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy.

Rascom-QAF 1R will join its still-functioning predecessor at 2.9 degrees east in geostationary orbit. Equipped with 12 Ku-band and eight C-band transponders, it will provide television, broadband and other telecommunications services to the 45 African telecommunications operators that own equity in Rascom.

The satellite has two Ku-band footprints, one for northern and western Africa and the other for the southern half of the continent. The C-band beam has a footprint covering the whole of Africa, southern Europe and western Asia.

The Rascom-QAF 1 satellite launched in December 2007 and arrived in orbit with a small fracture in its helium pressurization system.

It remains unclear how the fracture occurred, as prime contractor Thales Alenia Space insisted that thorough leak tests were performed at the Guiana Space Center launch base before the satellite was placed onto the Ariane 5 rocket, and there was no indication of excessive vibration or other turbulence encountered as the vehicle rose through the atmosphere.

Once the decision was made to try to salvage the mission, Thales Alenia Space was obliged to use the satellite’s small thrusters to raise Rascom-QAF 1 from the transfer orbit into final geostationary position. Using the larger apogee kick motor would have depressurized the fuel tank because of the helium leak and meant little or no service life remaining once in operating position.

“Even TAS [Thales Alenia Space] was not sure the satellite would be able to reach geostationary orbit,” Rascom Chief Executive Faraj Elamari said in a July 12 briefing in Paris.

Ultimately, the satellite arrived on station with approximately three years of service life remaining. The electronics payload worked as expected. Rascom eventually received an insurance settlement of about $230 million, a figure that accounts for the fact that the mission was not a total loss and will operate for nearly three years.

It then fell to Rascom’s shareholders to determine whether, after more than a decade of planning the Rascom project, they wanted to build a new satellite or take the insurance proceeds and call it quits.

Rascom is 63 percent owned by the Libyan African Investment Portfolio, 25 percent by 45 African telecommunications providers and 12 percent by Thales Alenia Space.

Rascom officials said the decision to build a new satellite was not obvious to some of the company’s shareholders.

Thales Alenia Space committed to building a satellite in time to take over from Rascom-QAF 1 before that spacecraft’s fuel pressure declined to the point at which it will need to be removed from service and retired in a graveyard orbit.

The fact that the satellite is functioning has not been sufficient to overcome the skepticism in the market about its status, Elamari said. Even more than two years after the launch, prospective customers still ask questions about whether the service is operating, he said.

He said it was nonetheless indispensible for the company to begin operations, even with a satellite with no long-term future.

“If we had not been in orbit it would mean we are not in operations and people would have forgotten about us,” he said. “Now at least we have been able to show people that we have a service, that we are operational.”

Since late 2008, the company has offered bandwidth lease services, mainly on an occasional-use basis but also through a few longer-term contracts for television broadcasters, Elamari said.

He declined to provide revenue figures.

In July 2009, Rascom signed a $53 million contract with Carlsbad, Calif.-based ViaSat Inc. to provide gateway Earth stations and an initial fleet of 15,000 Rascom terminals. Ultimately, Rascom expects African telecommunications operators to order terminals to service some 130,000 African villages.

The company recently completed a market survey of demand in the region with a view to ordering another satellite, both to accommodate the growing market and to provide a backup for the Rascom-QAF 1R.

Rascom officials were wary of saying when they would place Rascom-QAF 1 into a graveyard orbit out of the geostationary arc, preferring to wait until the replacement satellite is fully tested in orbit. Thales Alenia Space officials said in-orbit testing of the Rascom-QAF 1R payload and other on-board systems should be completed by mid-August. The satellite then will be drifted to its operating position at 2.9 degrees east, a maneuver that should be completed by mid-September.