Proton Successfully Launches Two Geostationary Satellites

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PARIS — An International Launch Services (ILS) Proton rocket on July 16 successfully placed two telecommunications satellites into separate orbits in the first commercial demonstration of the rocket’s ability to carry two geostationary-orbiting spacecraft at a time, ILS and the satellites’ owners said.

Operating from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the Proton vehicle and its Breeze-M upper stage first placed the 3,150-kilogram SES-3 satellite, owned by SES of Luxembourg, into geostationary transfer orbit about eight hours after liftoff.

The Breeze-M then continued its mission, placing the 1,000-kilogram KazSat-2 satellite, owned by the government of Kazakhstan, directly into geostationary orbit some 83 minutes later.

Reston, Va.-based ILS, which markets launches of Russia’s Proton rocket commercially, has said it will use a recent Proton-upgrade program, which resulted in a performance increase, to offer customers with small satellites the possibility of a shared Proton launch.

ILS’s principal competitor, the Arianespace launch consortium of Evry, France, has long based its business on launching two commercial satellites at a time. ILS’s focus has been on heavier satellites, launched one at a time.

But in recent years several well-established commercial fleet operators, including SES, have shown an appetite for smaller spacecraft of the kind built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va.

These 3,000-kilogram-class satellites can be launched in the “second seat” of Arianespace’s heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket, but other launch options have been rare. That is about to change.

Depending on their weight, satellites in this class also can be launched as solo passengers aboard California-based Space Exploration Technologies’ Falcon 9 vehicle, in development for geostationary missions; and by the Europeanized version of Russia’s Soyuz vehicle, which is scheduled to enter operations from Europe’s equatorial Guiana Space Center spaceport late this year.

SES-3 is one of five satellites SES ordered from Orbital Sciences in a single purchase in 2007 that was valued at about $400 million. SES-3, which carries 24 C-band and 24 Ku-band transponders, will replace the AMC-1 satellite at 103 degrees west longitude to provide broadband data and television service in North America.

KazSat-2 was built for the Kazakh government by the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center of Moscow, which also is the prime contractor on the Proton launch vehicle, and the owner of ILS.

Khrunichev said KazSat-2 will be operated at 86.5 degrees east by the Kazakh government for Internet and other telecommunications services.

Khrunichev also built the KazSat-1 satellite, which was launched in June 2006 but was declared a loss two years later following what the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, called a failure of its flight control system.

The Kazakh government, through its Kazcosmos space agency, reported July 17 that KazSat-2 was healthy in orbit.

The launch was ILS’s second of the year; the first occurred in May. The company has said it plans seven or eight commercial Proton missions in 2011, but operations have been slowed because of the delayed arrival of several ILS customer spacecraft.

The ILS launch in May carried the Telstar 14R/Estrela do Sol telecommunications satellite for commercial fleet operator Telesat of Canada. The spacecraft’s solar panels did not fully deploy.

The investigation into the cause of the deployment failure could result in further delays for ILS because its next customers are all using the same Loral 1300 platform, built by Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif., that was used for the Telesat satellite.

Insurance underwriters and customers want to have a clear idea of what caused the solar array deployment failure before other commercial satellites built by Loral are launched.