Orbital’s Space Station Cargo Launcher Encounters Additional Delays

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PARIS — The first flight of Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket with the Cygnus space station cargo freighter has slipped again and is not likely to occur before October or November, Orbital Sciences Chief Executive David W. Thompson said April 20.

In a conference call with financial analysts, Thompson pointed to no specific issue responsible for the latest delay of between one to two months from the previous schedule, announced in late February. He said the certification of the Wallops Island, Va., spaceport and its propellant-handling facilities is proceeding without major incident, and that the launch pad should be turned over to Orbital by mid-June or perhaps a bit earlier.

A test firing of the Antares rocket’s first stage on the launch pad is now scheduled for early July. The rocket will make its inaugural flight, without the Cygnus cargo carrier, in August under the new schedule. The Antares/Cygnus launch would then occur in October or November.

The two first Antares flights are being conducted as part of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contract, a cost-sharing arrangement in which NASA has agreed to pay $188 million. Thompson estimated that Orbital’s investment in the program, which under the contract is done with no profit margin for the company, is about $180 million so far, with a small supplemental investment scheduled in 2012.

Orbital is also under a $1.9 billion contract with NASA to conduct eight Antares/Cygnus flights to the station. The original schedule in the 2008 contract was for these missions to carry a total of 20,000 kilograms of supplies to the international space station between 2011 and 2015.

 

Satellite Order Imminent

In the conference call, Thompson announced that the Dulles, Va.-based company was in final negotiations with a single, unidentified customer for two commercial telecommunications satellites. Industry officials said the customer is Spanish satellite fleet operator Hispasat, which is looking to replace an aging satellite over Europe and to expand its presence in Latin America.

Thompson said that the second of these satellites could be for the GeoStar 3 design that Orbital has been developing for several years. The new platform has more mass and payload power than Orbital’s GeoStar 2 platform, which occupies a niche at the smaller end of the commercial telecommunications satellite market, with payload power of between 1 and 5.5 kilowatts.

Thompson said it is not yet certain that the two-satellite customer will order the higher-power GeoStar 3. Ultimately, he said, the company’s current average harvest of between three and four telecommunications satellite contracts per year could expand to five per year with the new platform.

Thompson said Orbital is sticking with its forecast that worldwide orders of geostationary-orbiting commercial telecommunications satellites in 2012 will total between 20 and 22, up from 18, by Orbital’s count, in 2011. Of these, five or six are expected to be for Orbital’s class of smaller spacecraft.

In addition to the two orders that Orbital apparently believes are all but booked, Thompson said the company is chasing two more commercial satellite orders, which are not expected to be decided before later this year.

Industry officials said satellite fleet operator SES of Luxembourg is preparing to order an SES-9 satellite over Asia and that Orbital may try to win the deal with an offer for two small satellites.

Thompson said effort by the U.S. State and Defense departments to remove some of the restrictions limiting exports of U.S. satellites and components is welcome and could help Orbital’s international business.

U.S. satellite manufacturers, he said, have done well in recent years and now hold about a 55 percent share of the global commercial market. “I think we could do even better” if satellites were easier to export, Thompson said.

He did not address the fact that the same proposed satellite-export reforms, which were released April 18, might force Orbital and its customers to incur extra charges for Antares launches because of U.S. oversight of the vehicle’s Ukrainian engine. Current oversight of Antares by U.S. government agencies is paid for by those agencies.

Orbital reported revenue of $338 million for the first three months of 2012, up 6 percent over the same period a year ago. The company’s launch vehicle and advanced space products divisions — the latter serving classified U.S. government missions — posted double-digit revenue increases. The satellite division posted sharply lower revenue because of lower sales of commercial satellites.

 

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