Launch of SiriusXM Satellite Delayed by Solar Array Concerns

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The planned March 6 launch of the SiriusXM FM-6 digital radio satellite aboard an International Launch Services (ILS) Proton rocket has been scrapped following concerns of a solar array defect aboard the Space Systems/Loral-built satellite, according to industry officials.

FM-6 is remaining at Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at least for now, and Loral officials hope to perform whatever verifications are needed without bringing it back to the Palo Alto, Calif., production facility, Space Systems/Loral President John Celli said Feb. 28.

Concerns were raised about the satellite not because of any observed malfunction, but because of a short-lived solar array deployment glitch aboard the SES-4 satellite launched Feb. 7.

SES-4, owned by SES of Luxembourg, had trouble completing deployment of one of its solar arrays. SES spokesman Yves Feltes said deployment eventually occurred, with the panels locking into place. The satellite is in good health and there are no further issues with it, he said.

The scare was serious enough for New York-based SiriusXM to cancel the planned March 6 launch, a decision that was made before the satellite was fueled at the Baikonur spaceport.

Reston, Va.-based ILS, which is responsible for commercial sales of the Proton vehicle, will now proceed with the launch of the Intelsat IS-22 satellite toward the end of March, ILS President Frank McKenna said here Feb. 29 during the World Space Risk Forum.

In response to Space News queries, Patrick Reilly, SiriusXM senior vice president for communications, issued the following statement Feb. 29:

“The planned launch of Sirius FM-6 satellite has been delayed in order to confirm its readiness status. The satellite will join the Sirius constellation and is expected to provide service as part of the company’s next-generation satellite network. The launch has not yet been rescheduled. The delay will not affect any of SiriusXM’s services. The existing fleet of SiriusXM satellites continues to operate well and provide uninterrupted services.”

One insurance official said it is likely that XM-6 will be made ready for launch without any substantial work on it, and without the need to return to its manufacturer.

“This is relatively minor, and in fact this design has seen these kinds of things before,” this official said. “I see no reason to worry about this one given what we know.”

For SiriusXM and its insurance underwriters, the SES-4 scare brought back memories of the Loral-built Estrela do Sul-2 (EDS-2) satellite launched in May 2011. Owned by Telesat of Canada, EDS-2 failed to deploy fully one of its two arrays, reducing the satellite’s power and communications capacity. Insurers have since paid a $132.7 million claim.

“This does not appear to be the same problem as with EDS-2,” the insurance official said. For SES-4, the problem appears to have been that one of the two side panels on one of the two five-panel solar arrays did not lock into place immediately on deployment.

ILS and its owner, Khrunichev Space Center of Moscow, which is the prime contractor for the Proton rocket, have expanded their satellite preparation facilities in Baikonur in the past couple of years, enabling a quicker turnaround between launches.

McKenna said that this expanded capability will mean ILS will not see any major interruption in its ambitious 2012 launch plans because of the FM-6 delay.

“We’re not skipping a beat,” McKenna said. After the IS-22 in late March, ILS plans eight more commercial missions in 2012, to be conducted alongside four Russian Federal government launches using the same Proton rocket.

“This delay has had no effect on our customers who are expecting launches this year,” McKenna said. “This is one of the advantages we have with the consolidation” of Proton production inside Khrunichev instead of spread among many different companies. “We can now go with launches as quickly as every 15 days.”

ILS Chief Technical Officer James M. Bonner said the avionics related issues that delayed the launch of SES-4 were now fully understood and not likely to be repeated. “We were able to definitively get to the bottom of what went wrong,” he said.

McKenna said ILS was booked through 2013 and expected seven or eight new contracts in 2012. The company is hoping to book two smaller commercial telecommunications satellites weighing a combined 6,000 kilograms for a single launch on Proton. ILS and Khrunichev have launched telecommunications satellites two at a time aboard Proton, but never two commercial spacecraft booked by ILS.

A Proton Duo capacity would extend ILS’s range beyond its core market of satellites weighing more than 5,000 kilograms.