Proton-M Failure Exacerbates Global Launch Market Squeeze

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PARIS — The Sept. 6 failure of a commercial Proton-M rocket following an anomaly in the vehicle’s second stage will shut down one of the world’s three principal commercial-launch vehicles just eight months after one of the other two – the Sea Launch Co. Zenit 3SL – was grounded because of its own failure.

As was the case with the Sea Launch incident, the most serious consequence of the Proton mishap likely will be felt not by the affected customer, Japan’s JSAT Corp., but by other commercial operators depending on a launch in the coming months. They have nowhere to turn given the current state of the global commercial-launch industry.

The Proton’s second-stage engine failure occurred slightly more than two minutes after liftoff from the Russian-run

Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The JCSAT-11 telecommunications satellite, owned by JSAT of Tokyo, was destroyed.

The satellite and launch were insured for about $185 million, according to insurance industry officials. JSAT had planned to use the satellite as an in-orbit backup for its current eight-satellite fleet, and the company said the failure will have no impact on its business. JSAT immediately ordered a replacement satellite from the JCSAT-11 builder, Lockheed Martin Commercial Space Systems of Newtown, Pa.

International Launch Services (ILS) of McLean, Va., which sells commercial Proton launches, was scheduled to loft three more satellites this year, including the Americom 14 and Sirius 4 spacecraft. Luxembourg-based SES said in a Sept. 6 statement that the failure would have no impact on its 2007 financial results.

Also scheduled for a Proton launch this year was Telenor Satellite Broadcasting’s Thor 5 – now labeled Thor 2R – which is badly needed because the company’s three satellites are full and two are scheduled for retirement in 2010 and 2011.

Cato Halsaa, chief executive of Telenor Satellite Broadcasting of Norway, said Sept. 6 that the company is reviewing its options as it awaits news on when Proton will return to service.

Numerous other companies will be in the same position as Telenor given the current squeeze on the commercial-launch market and the lack of available alternatives.

Sea Launch President Rob Peckham said at the annual Euroconsult satellite-finance conference here Sept. 5 that, assuming Sea Launch’s return to flight occurs in October as scheduled, the company plans to make a second launch toward the end of the year. For 2008, Sea Launch is solidly booked, assuming its manifested satellite payloads arrive on schedule, Peckham said.

Arianespace, whose Ariane 5 vehicle can loft two medium-size telecommunications satellites at a time, is fully booked for the remainder of 2007. Arianespace may or may not have a slot available in 2008 – again depending on whether scheduled customers are on time with their payloads, Arianespace Chief Executive Jean-Yves Le Gall said in a Sept. 6 interview.

“This latest event should drive home to satellite operators the need to reserve slots for 2009 as early as they can,” Le Gall said. “As for what Arianespace’s availability is, we are increasing our Ariane 5 launch rate from six this year, to seven – and maybe eight – in 2008, and to eight in 2009.”

The Atlas 5 rocket, built by United Launch Alliance and marketed commercially by Lockheed Martin, is booked also, mainly with U.S. Air Force satellites, until sometime in 2009 at the earliest. Sea Launch’s Zenit 3SL, Proton-M and Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket all were showing full or nearly full manifests even before the Sea Launch failure, which caused a near-panic among some satellite owners as they sought alternatives.

ILS was able to accommodate a couple of Sea Launch customers on the Proton-M manifest in the wake of the January crash, as was Arianespace.

But several Sea Launch customers whose business plans called for 2007 in-service dates have been unable to switch, and this will undoubtedly be the case for customers on Proton’s waiting list.

Stephen T. O’Neill, president of Boeing Satellite Systems International of El Segundo, Calif., which has several customers waiting for Sea Launch to resume operations, said during the Euroconsult conference Sept. 5 that, in light of what happened with Sea Launch, “a launch failure in the next 12 months could have a serious effect on some companies’ business models.”

Meanwhile, the Russian government and ILS announced that each would form failure-review teams to assess what went wrong with the Proton-M’s second stage. Russian government satellites account for at least 50 percent of the Proton’s near-term launch manifest.

Satellite insurance brokers meeting here Sept. 6 for the Euroconsult conference said the Proton failure almost certainly will scuttle any chance for profitability this year in the space-insurance sector.

Eric J. Allensbach, senior space underwriter and managing director of Swiss Re, said the Sea Launch and Proton-M insurance claims, combined with the deferral of premiums that were expected from subsequent launches of these vehicles that now will not take place this year, will make 2007 a money-losing year.

Pierre-Eric Lys, managing director of insurance underwriter SpaceCo of Paris, agreed that 2007 would end in a loss.

The Russian space agency, Roskosmos, and Proton-M prime contractor Khrunichev Space Center of Moscow said the failure occurred when Proton was at an altitude of 76 kilometers.

The Kazakh government, which leases the BaikonurCosmodrome site to Russia for $115 million per year, said Sept. 7 that some 15 pieces of the rocket or its payload have been recovered. Kazakh authorities said they would conduct their own investigation into the pollution effects of the Proton’s fuel falling once again on Kazakh territory.

Past launch failures at Baikonur have resulted in cash payouts by Russia and in delayed launches as the two governments negotiated return-to-flight conditions.

Press statements posted on the Roskosmos and Khrunichev Web sites said debris from the failure came down about 50 kilometers southwest of the Kazakh city of Dzhezkazgan and that no injuries or property destruction were reported.

In the wake of the crash, Kazakh authorities threatened to impose tougher safety requirements on Baikonur launches.

Simon Saradzhyan contributed to this article from Moscow.