NASA Funds Keep August Debut of Orbital’s Taurus 2 on Track

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PARIS — Satellite and rocket manufacturer Orbital Sciences on Feb. 17 said it has begun receiving cash from NASA to prepare for an inaugural flight of the Taurus 2 rocket, now set for August, to prove the vehicle’s operational status in advance of a flight carrying the company’s Cygnus cargo capsule.

Dulles, Va.-based Orbital said NASA has committed about $40 million of a planned $120 million needed for the no-payload Taurus 2 launch, being funded in part by NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.

While doubts remain about how much NASA can spend in 2011 while it awaits final budget approval, the U.S. agency has found the initial funds needed to permit Orbital to work on the Taurus 2 risk-reduction flight at least through early April, Orbital Chief Executive David W. Thompson said in a conference call with investors.

If NASA’s budget authority is confirmed by then, he said, the remaining $80 million should be forthcoming.

Assuming the Taurus 2 risk-reduction flight occurs without major problems in August, the vehicle could launch again in November or December, this time with the Cygnus capsule. Cygnus is intended to deliver supplies to the international space station.

“Schedules remain tight and cost pressures continue” as Orbital prepares the new Wallops Island, Va., spaceport and the rocket and Cygnus hardware, J.R. Thompson, the company’s chief operating officer, said during the conference call. Current plans, he said, call for the vehicle’s transporter/erector system to arrive in March, with a 20-second test firing of the Taurus 2 first stage scheduled to occur on the launch pad in July.

Orbital is under contract to launch eight Taurus 2 vehicles with pressurized Cygnus capsules to the international space station between 2012 and 2015 as part of NASA’s Commercial Resupply Service (CRS) program. David Thompson said the company booked $275 million in COTS and CRS revenue in 2010, and that this work should generate between $315 million and $325 million in revenue in 2011.

Much of the CRS funding is released piecemeal, with a portion of the payments following each successful mission. As of Dec. 31, Orbital had $350 million in CRS funding listed as firm backlog.

Orbital’s Gilbert, Ariz.-based satellite manufacturing facility, purchased from General Dynamics for $55 million in mid-2010, generated $70 million in revenue for the year and is on track to climb to an annual revenue figure of about $100 million. For the three months ending Dec. 31, the facility reported $22 million in revenue.

Orbital, which in January won a contract to assemble and test 81 Iridium Next mobile communications satellites, has agreed to pay McLean, Va.-based Iridium Communications a nonrefundable $10 million deposit to reserve up to 20 percent of the capacity being made available on those satellites for payloads owned by government agencies or other institutions.

Iridium has set aside space measuring no more than 30 by 40 by 70 centimeters on each satellite for hosted payloads requiring no more than 50 watts of power on average, with peak demand of 200 watts. Iridium is reserving a data downlink capability of 100 kilobits per second, on average, for each satellite’s hosted payload.

Iridium has said that if Orbital exercises its option, it will pay up to $100 million over 15 years for the hosted payload service. David Thompson said Orbital, which he said has been involved with hosted payloads on five or six of its satellites in the past, views the Iridium opportunity as “the most exciting hosted payload opportunity that we have ever seen. But it’s a perishable opportunity that comes along once every decade-and-a-half.”

Because of Iridium’s intersatellite communications links that can deliver data to a given ground reception point, hosted payload customers need not worry about developing their own ground infrastructure. “It comes pretty much for free,” David Thompson said, adding that potential hosted payloads include sensors for science, meteorology, air traffic control, missile warning and space situational awareness. He said Orbital has an option of increasing its allocation of Iridium’s hosted payload space beyond 20 percent “depending on market demand.”

Meanwhile, Orbital booked two orders for its Star 2 commercial telecommunications satellite platform in 2010, one less than the company had expected. For 2011, David Thompson said he expects global orders for geostationary-orbiting commercial telecommunications satellites to drop to 18 to 20 from 22 in 2010, with between four and six of these to be in Orbital’s weight class. Of these, he said, Orbital hopes for three contracts.

On the strength of an exceptionally strong year-end performance, Orbital reported $1.29 billion in revenue for 2010, up 15 percent over 2009. Operating income, at $73 million, was up by 39.6 percent, for a 5.6 percent operating margin. Orbital Chief Financial Officer Garrett E. Pierce said Orbital forecasts revenue in 2011 to grow to between $1.3 billion and $1.35 billion.