Orbital Says It Has Booked First Order for New Higher-power Satellite Platform

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PARIS — Satellite and rocket manufacturer Orbital Sciences Corp. on June 14 said it had booked an inaugural order for its new, higher-power telecommunications satellite design and that its space station cargo resupply program has been delayed by another month.

Dulles, Va.-based Orbital has invested heavily in its GeoStar 3 satellite platform, designed to deliver 7 kilowatts of power to its communications payload, up from 5 kilowatts for Orbital’s current satellite design.

Going from 5 to 7 kilowatts gives Orbital a wider market.

In a presentation in Chicago to investors, Orbital Chief Financial Officer Garrett E. Pierce did not identify the customer for the first GeoStar 3 but said “we recently booked an order in Europe” for the platform.

Industry officials said Orbital has been negotiating with satellite fleet operator Hispasat of Spain, which is looking for new satellite capacity in its European and South American markets.

A Hispasat official said June 15 that while contract negotiations were under way, no contract had been signed.

Pierce also said Orbital now plans to test-fire the first stage of its Antares rocket in late July or early August at the new Wallops Island, Va., spaceport — a month later than the schedule announced in late April.

A successful test-firing will be followed by a demonstration flight of the two-stage Antares vehicle, without the Cygnus cargo module, in August or September.

The first Antares-Cygnus flight, designed to carry cargo to the international space station, then would occur in November or December.

Antares and Cygnus would begin regular cargo deliveries to the station, under Orbital’s Cargo Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA, at a rate of two flights per year starting in 2013.

Orbital’s CRS contract, valued at about $1.9 billion, calls for eight flights carrying a total of 20,000 kilograms of cargo to the space station.

Pierce said the international space station’s demand for cargo is big enough to give both Orbital and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., business beyond that covered by the current CRS contract.

SpaceX, which successfully concluded a demonstration flight of its Dragon capsule to the space station in May, has its own CRS contract with NASA valued at $1.6 billion.

“There is plenty of room to deliver cargo to the international space station,” Pierce said. “I don’t think there is going to be a winner and a loser, or that anybody is going to eat anybody else’s lunch.”

Pierce said Orbital’s cargo resupply contract with NASA was signed nearly three years after SpaceX’s contract, and that Orbital is currently six or seven months behind SpaceX, “so we’ve caught up,” he said. Both companies are about two years behind their station cargo supply contract schedules.

With development work on the GeoStar 3 platform nearly finished and the company’s station logistics development program also winding down as Orbital moves toward regular production, the company expects to enter a period of higher profitability, Pierce said.

Orbital is forecasting that its revenue will increase by an average of between 7 and 9 percent per year between 2012 and 2014, with 2012 revenue to be up 9 percent over the 2011 total of $1.35 billion.

Operating profit will be between 6.5 percent and 7 percent of revenue in 2012 and is expected to increase in 2013 and 2014 as the company enters full CRS operations and revenue generation. Capital spending will drop “precipitously” starting next year, Pierce said, further fueling profitability.

More than a third of Orbital’s 2012 revenue is expected to come from the U.S. Defense Department and U.S. intelligence agencies. Pierce said recent contracts for missile defense work, combined with ongoing contracts to provide target vehicles including the supersonic sea-skimming vehicle that simulates anti-ship missiles, will bring that business back to where it was a decade ago, to nearly $200 million in annual revenue.