News Briefs

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  Space News Business

News Briefs

posted: 23 May 2005
01:36 pm ET


U.S. WEATHER SATELLITE SUCCESSFULLY LAUNCHED

After a week of weather-related delays, NASA launched a new U.S. weather satellite into polar orbit May 20 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., aboard a Boeing-built Delta 2 rocket.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)-N spacecraft was renamed NOAA-18 upon reaching orbit. The satellite, built by Lockheed Martin Corp., will monitor the Earth’s surface and atmosphere for weather forecasting and long-range and seasonal climate projections.

INMARSAT PREPARING FOR PUBLIC OFFERING IN JUNE

Mobile satellite-services provider Inmarsat of London is planning an initial public offering (IPO) of stock on the London Stock Exchange in June that will be valued at about 750 million British pounds ($1.38 billion), according to industry officials.

The move is a measure of the enthusiasm among prospective investors for mobile satellite ventures in the United States, where Inmarsat competitor Motient Corp. has received early interest from investors in two separate mobile satellite systems, in S-band and L-band.

The L-band Inmarsat system’s future centers on the Inmarsat 4 satellites, designed to deliver data services to mobile users’ laptops and other gear. Inmarsat has invested $1.5 billion in the Inmarsat 4 project. The first of three Inmarsat 4 satellites was successfully launched in March. The second, to cover the United States, is scheduled for launch in October.

Inmarsat’s IPO will offer a high dividend yield to investors, a sweetener considered necessary in today’s investment climate. Inmarsat then would seek strategic partners in the United States, and perhaps a buyer for the entire company, to finance the ground network of signal enhancers Inmarsat will need for its service to work in urban canyons and other places where satellite signals cannot reach.

Inmarsat spokesman Chris McLaughlin declined May 20 to discuss the company’s IPO plans, referring to previous comments by Inmarsat Chief Executive Andy Sukawaty, who has said Inmarsat’s two leveraged-buyout owners are keeping their options open.

Inmarsat spent more than $10 million on bankers’ and advisors’ fees between 2001 and 2003 in five attempts at an IPO that ultimately failed due to less-than-favorable market conditions. Two private-equity funds, Apax Partners and Permira, purchased a majority stake in Inmarsat in December 2003.

Telenor Satellite Services of Norway, Lockheed Martin Corp. of the United States and KDDI Corp. of Japan currently own 14.95 percent, 13.96 percent and 7.55 percent of Inmarsat, respectively.

FCC COMPLICATES PLAN TO MOVE ECHOSTAR SATELLITE

SES Global and EchoStar may need to come up with a Plan B in their efforts to move an aging EchoStar satellite to a Mexico-registered orbital slot in time to meet a July 10 Mexican government deadline.

Luxembourg-based SES’s QuetzSat company, registered in Mexico, must occupy the slot at 77 degrees west longitude by then or face higher costs and regulatory hurdles in establishing its new business. EchoStar had agreed to lease QuetzSat its EchoStar 4 satellite, and then to lease it back from QuetzSat, to meet Mexico’s deadline.

But the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has asked EchoStar to provide further information about the Mexican venture before agreeing to the move.

EchoStar had hoped to reduce the effect of the regulatory delay by starting to drift EchoStar 4 from its current slot at 157 degrees west longitude to a slot at 61.5 degrees west longitude. The company then would divert the satellite to the Mexican slot once it got the FCC go-ahead. In a separate request to the FCC, EchoStar asked for approval of the 61.5-degree destination.

On May 19, however, the FCC refused to grant EchoStar permission to make the move to 61.5 degrees, saying the company has not been clear about what it wants to do, and why. EchoStar’s separate request to go directly to the Mexican slot is still pending at the FCC.

GAO STUDY WILL DELVE INTO SPACE PROCUREMENT ILLS

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) expects to issue a new report in mid-June on the causes of problems with military space acquisition programs, according to a GAO official .

While the GAO has written numerous reports on the Pentagon’s space acquisition problems , this one will take a more in-depth look at the underlying causes , said Robert Levin, a director on the GAO’s acquisition and sourcing management team.

The report will address a range of ongoing space acquisition efforts, and is based on interviews with more than 40 current and retired experts within government and industry, Levin said.

JAMES WEBB TELESCOPE FACES BIG COST OVERRUN

NASA may scale back the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) in order to head off a looming $1 billion cost overrun on the program, the agency’s highest-priority astronomy observatory in development.

Unless NASA takes steps to eliminate the overrun, the total price tag for JWST, including five years of on-orbit operations, would grow to $4.5 billion.

Eric Smith, JWST program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said the new cost projections are driven by higher-than-expected estimates from prime contractor Northrop Grumman Space Technology, miscellaneous design changes and a launch delay of approximately one year to 2012.

The observatory , NASA’s follow-on to the Hubble Space Telescope, is primarily an infrared telescope with four major instruments and a 6.5-meter mirror.

NASA looked at scaling back the JWST’s mirror to 4 meters in diameter — which had been proposed in the mid-1990s — and found that it would degrade the telescope’s science capabilities significantly without knocking much off the price tag, Smith said. The savings, he said, were about $200 million-plus.

Smith said NASA now plans to convene a group of senior scientists to undertake a more thorough assessment of the telescope’s scientific goals and capabilities and rank them according to priority. The prioritized list, Smith said, will help the JWST team produce a set of options that range from scaling back the telescope to meet only the highest-ranking science objectives to absorbing the cost overrun and building the telescope as planned.

That exercise is expected to be completed by mid-July, but any decisions about what actions to take, Smith said, will have to await input from the broader science community and NASA’s international partners on the project. News of the JWST’s cost overrun was first reported in the May 13 issue of Science magazine.

OFFICIAL: NEW SPACE POLICY WILL RESEMBLE EXISTING ONE

The national space policy update being drafted by the White House is not likely to depart significantly from existing space policy, White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters May 18. “The policy that we’re talking about is not looking at weaponizing space,” he said.

McClellan was responding to a May 18 story in the New York Times that said the U.S. Air Force was pushing for changes that would move the United States closer to the deploying space weapons.

The policy needs to be modified to account for changes that have taken place since it was last updated in 1996, McClellan said, adding that the current activity was not prompted by the Air Force or the Department of Defense.

“The policy we are reviewing is aimed at being consistent with previous national space policy and our overall national security policy,” McClellan said. “I expect it’s likely to continue to emphasize the sovereignty of space systems and the right of free passage of those space systems.”

The 1996 policy document states that the United States is committed to the peaceful use of space for all nations. However, it states that the United States will develop and use capabilities needed to ensure “freedom of action in space and, if directed, deny such freedom of action to adversaries.”