Rocket Production Issue Threatens Intelsat 18 Launch Date

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PARIS — Satellite fleet operator Intelsat is scrambling to secure launch alternatives for its Intelsat 18 telecommunications satellite amid concerns that the provider currently under contract, Russia’s Land Launch operation, will be unable to secure rocket components to assure the planned June liftoff, industry officials said.

The issue has been complicated by what looks like a divorce between Land Launch and Sea Launch Co. following the latter’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009. It was during these proceedings that Luxembourg- and Washington-based Intelsat transferred its Intelsat 18 launch contract from Sea launch to Land Launch — specifically, to Moscow-based Space International Services (SIS), which operates Land Launch.

Land Launch and Sea Launch use the same basic Zenit 3SL rocket, with Land Launch flying from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and Sea Launch operating from a converted oil platform to launch from the Pacific Ocean on the equator. Sea Launch previously marketed the Land Launch vehicle.

Sea Launch is emerging from bankruptcy following a cash infusion by Energia Overseas Ltd., an affiliate of RSC Energia, one of Russia’s biggest space-hardware manufacturers. As part of the Russian government’s stated wish to consolidate its space industrial base, rocket-engine builder Energomash of Khimki, which produces Zenit engines, has recently been placed under the management of Energia.

Industry officials said it remains unclear whether Energia, given its ownership of Sea Launch, is giving preferential treatment to Sea Launch with respect to deliveries of engines and other Zenit components. What is clear is that at least three entities — Sea Launch, Land Launch and the Russian government for an upcoming science mission — all have an interest in protecting their own planned Zenit launches.

Intelsat officials were in Moscow the week of April 4 in a last-ditch effort to sort out the situation and make the case that the company, which has been a principal promoter of Sea Launch and Land Launch on the global commercial launch market, is adamant about Intelsat 18 being launched in June.

Intelsat Chief Technical Officer Thierry Guillemin said the satellite, under construction by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., will be ready for shipment to Baikonur in late April to prepare for the launch.

In an April 7 interview from Moscow, Guillemin said Intelsat remains hopeful that the Zenit component shortage will be sorted out in a way that permits SIS and Land Launch to proceed with the Intelsat 18 campaign.

“There are clearly some issues with Land Launch production, and we are sorting through those issues,” Guillemin said. “They have problems and we understand that, but our interest is only in seeing our launch occur as scheduled. We expect our vendors to fulfill their obligations and we would like to work this out in the next few weeks.”

Intelsat has booked customers on Intelsat 18 and stands to lose revenue if the launch is delayed. The spacecraft is already about six months behind schedule following what Intelsat said was a “performance compliance issue” on the electronics payload during production. The company said at the time that it had built sufficient margin into its contracts with Intelsat 18 (IS-18) customers to absorb what then looked like a four-month delay without a major impact on revenue.

Guillemin said Intelsat would not ship the satellite to Kazakhstan until the situation is clarified. Asked if Intelsat could secure a backup provider in time to launch the satellite this summer, he said: “There is always a Plan B.”

Industry officials said Intelsat was first informed about the problem in late January. The company responded with a sharply worded letter sent to SIS, Russia’s Roscosmos space agency and to Sea Launch.

“We are shocked” at the news that SIS may not be able to proceed with the June launch, says the letter, dated Feb. 3 and signed by Kenneth Lee, Intelsat’s senior vice president for space systems.

“This is a very serious problem. Any delay of the IS-18 launch is completely unacceptable. It is imperative that SIS and Sea Launch work together to immediately find a solution to this issue,” says the letter, a copy of which was obtained by Space News.

Sea Launch President Kjell Karlsen said his company’s involvement with the Intelsat 18 launch ended when Intelsat, seeking to avoid complications surrounding Sea Launch’s bankruptcy proceedings, transferred the launch contract to SIS and Land Launch.

“I have nothing to do with the contract that Intelsat signed with SIS,” Karlsen said in a March 31 interview. “But we are working with the parties involved to see if we can be of help.”

Long Beach, Calif.-based Sea Launch is planning two launches this year, which will punctuate the company’s new ownership following the bankruptcy proceedings, Karlsen said. The first is the launch of Paris-based Eutelsat’s Atlantic Bird 7 satellite, scheduled for September. A second launch, of the Intelsat 19 satellite, is scheduled for December.

Karlsen said Sea Launch still needs to settle final contractual issues with Land Launch, for which Sea Launch handled marketing and mission management before the Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Karlsen said Intelsat is “a very important customer for Sea Launch” and that Sea Launch has taken steps to prove to both Intelsat and Eutelsat that components for their launches are being built on schedule.

Intelsat’s importance to both Sea Launch and Land Launch was a focus of Lee’s Feb. 3 letter.

Lee pointed out that Intelsat, seeking to assure the viability of Sea Launch and Land Launch at a time when both were in financial distress, agreed to pay SIS cash amounts beyond what was stipulated in the contracts for the launch of the Measat-1R, Telstar-11N, Intelsat 15 and Intelsat 18 satellites.

“These were very difficult and painful decisions for us,” Lee said in his letter. “[B]ut we … wanted to help ensure the long-term viability of the Land Launch program.”

Intelsat was also critical to Sea Launch’s survival of Chapter 11 bankruptcy, guaranteeing future Intelsat business, in writing, to the bankruptcy court handling the proceedings. “It is fair to say that Sea Launch would not have survived or emerged from bankruptcy without the support of Intelsat,” the letter says.

“Now is time for SIS and Sea Launch to step up and support Intelsat. … urgently demands that your companies fully cooperate and take all necessary steps to make sure that IS-18 is launched this June. This is of vital importance to Intelsat, as well as to the future of SIS and Sea Launch. If this problem is not resolved, Intelsat will likely not commit to any future launches with SIS or Sea Launch.”