Orbital Reschedule Antares Hot Fire, Reports Earnings

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PARIS — Orbital Sciences expects to make a second attempt at a “hot fire” test of the Antares rocket’s first stage by Feb. 21 after a preliminary review of the aborted Feb. 13 test shows the issue will be easy to remedy, Orbital Chief Executive David W. Thompson said Feb. 14.

A successful test would be followed by the demonstration flight of the Antares rocket in early April.

A demonstration of cargo-delivery to the international space station with the Cygnus capsule could occur this summer under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contract with NASA, Thompson said in a conference call with investors.

That flight’s successful completion would permit Orbital to conduct the first of eight scheduled trips to the station under a separate NASA contract, called Commercial Resupply Services, sometime this fall.

The Feb. 13 test was aborted 1.5 seconds before ignition when the stage’s on-board computer detected low pressure in a nitrogen-purge tank. The countdown went smoothly until that moment, Thompson said.

He said Orbital’s commercial telecommunications satellite product line, which reported a 7 percent operating-profit margin in 2012, will stay at around that level as the company invests in research and development of a new product.

The new GeoStar-3 product will offer power of between seven and eight kilowatts, compared to the current GeoStar-2 platform, which starts at five kilowatts.

Thompson said that by Orbital’s count, 19 new geostationary-orbiting commercial telecommunications satellites were ordered in 2012. Four were in Orbital’s weight class, meaning the lighter end of the market, and Orbital won two of these.

For 2013, Thompson said 17 to 20 satellites are likely to be ordered, with between four and six of them in Orbital’s class. The company expects to book three of these, he said.

Orbital reported that revenue in 2012, at $1.44 billion, was up 7 percent from 2011, with operating income up 41 percent and was 7.8 percent of revenue.

Thompson said Orbital is slightly reducing its forecast for revenue and operating income for 2013 because of the cloudy outlook for the U.S. government’s budget in the coming months, and because of milestone events in Orbital programs that could affect financial performance.

He said NASA’s budget picture “is actually not bad,” and is better than the U.S. Defense Department’s budget outlook, with or without the threat of sequestration and automatic spending cuts that come with it.

Longer term, Thompson said, Orbital is comfortable with being a low-cost provider to the U.S. Defense Department, a company that is able to provide 80 percent of what competitors would offer for a military space program, at 40 to 50 percent of the cost.