Loral, Thales Alenia Space Competing To Build Thor 7

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PARIS — The competition to build the Thor 7 telecommunications satellite for Norway’s Telenor Satellite Broadcasting has been narrowed to two finalists and may feature the first face-off between the Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) Falcon 9 and Chinese Long March rockets, industry officials said.

Oslo-based Telenor expects to select a winner in June for a launch in early 2014 of Thor 7, a mixed Ku-/Ka-band satellite that signals Telenor’s intentions to expand beyond its home market.

Industry officials said Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif., and Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy are the two finalists. Given that Telenor is looking for a relatively small satellite, Loral’s presence might have been surprising until earlier this year, when the company a contract to build a small spacecraft for Australia’s Optus telecommunications operator.

To sweeten its proposal, Loral has included a Falcon 9 rocket in its Thor 7 bid, industry officials said. Loral in March purchased a Falcon 9 vehicle from Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX with the expectation that the contract one day would be helpful to a Loral satellite bid.

Thales Alenia Space, meanwhile, is able to offer a Chinese Long March rocket because the European manufacturer has developed a product line that is devoid of U.S.-built components subject to the decade-long ban on exports to China.

Officials from Loral, Thales Alenia Space and Telenor declined to comment on the Thor 7 competition.

The Falcon 9 rocket has two commercial operators that have signed up for launches into geostationary transfer orbit, the usual destination of telecommunications satellites: Israel’s Spacecom and SES of Luxembourg.

SpaceX officials have said they bested the Chinese rocket in the competition to launch 72 Iridium low-orbiting mobile communications satellites, under construction by Thales Alenia Space. But the Chinese vehicle, marketed by China Great Wall Industry Corp. of Beijing, was barred from the Iridium competition because of the high U.S. content in the Iridium satellites.

The Thor 7 satellite is viewed as likely too heavy to launch aboard the European version of Russia’s Soyuz rocket, which is scheduled to start flying late this year and can carry satellites weighing around 3,000 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit.

The other launch options for Thor 7 would be an International Launch Services Proton rocket, probably as a solo passenger; and as a co-passenger aboard a European Ariane 5 heavy-lift launcher. Both are likely to be substantially more expensive than Falcon 9 or Long March.