Satellite Orders Drop but Near-term Launch Manifests Are Full

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PARIS — Global orders for commercial geostationary-orbiting telecommunications satellites fell sharply in 2011, to 17 compared to 26 in 2010, as the historically large capital spending surge by the biggest satellite fleet operators began its long-anticipated decline.

How much the cyclical decline in spending by SES of Luxembourg, Intelsat of Luxembourg and Washington, Eutelsat of Paris and Canada’s Telesat will affect the overall health of the satellite manufacturing and launch industry remains unclear.

In 2011, there were big orders by DirecTV Group for direct broadcast television satellite s in Latin America and one-satellite contracts from new members of the satellite owners club, including Turkmenistan and Belarus. These types of contracts can help mitigate the effects of the spending dip by the large fleet operators, industry officials say.

 

Busy year in store for launch providers

For the global commercial launch industry, the drop in satellite manufacturing orders in 2011 compared to 2010 likely will not be felt until 2014.

The launcher sector follows by two to four years the trend in the satellite manufacturing industry. In 2011, 22 launch contracts for geostationary-orbiting commercial satellites were signed, up from 20 in 2010.

For now, the principal launch-services providers active in the geostationary market — Arianespace of Evry, France; International Launch Services (ILS) of Reston, Va., which markets Russia’s Proton vehicle; China Great Wall Industry Corp. of Beijing; and Sea Launch of Bern, Switzerland — are showing manifests that are full or nearly so for both 2012 and 2013.

Part of the reason for this is that several satellites were late in arriving at their launch pads in 2011, which forced the two most active market players, Arianespace and ILS, to curtail their planned activity in 2011.

The satellites that were not ready for launch in 2011 will now move into 2012, further swelling what had already been shaping up as a busy launch year.

ILS President Frank McKenna said the satellite delays in 2011 that forced ILS to sit out the early part of the year appear to be less of an issue for 2012. These delays, combined with a Proton launch failure on a non-ILS mission in August and a component alert that canceled a planned late-December ILS mission, meant ILS conducted just five missions in 2011.

Overall, the Proton rocket was able to conduct nine launches in 2011, including four Russian government missions.

McKenna said the avionics part whose suspected defect caused ILS to cancel the late December launch of the SES-4 satellite is expected to be replaced in time for SES-4 to be launched in late January.

“Had we launched SES-4 in 2011 we would have launched all the satellites that were delivered to us,” McKenna said in a Jan. 5 interview. “So 2011 was challenging, but in 2012 we are looking for a more robust year, with nine commercial ILS missions and two Russian Federal missions. In general, the launch services industry is going to be very busy for the next two years.”

Arianespace Chairman Jean-Yves Le Gall said Jan. 5 that Arianespace, which was kept to five Ariane 5 launches in 2011 instead of a planned six, also because of late-arriving satellites, plans seven Ariane 5 liftoffs in 2012.

One of the missions will loft the European Automated Transfer Vehicle, an international space station logistics carrier; the remaining six will carry two commercial telecommunications satellites each.

Arianespace is also planning five launches of the Russianbuilt Soyuz rocket — three from the newly inaugurated pad at Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport in French Guiana, and two from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Le Gall and McKenna disagreed on the current trend in commercial pricing. Le Gall said prices were trending upward; McKenna said prices have been flat, especially since Sea Launch emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy in late 2010.

Sea Launch President Kjell Karlsen said Jan. 5 that his company, which upon exiting Chapter 11 proceedings had a backlog of nearly $1 billion, plans three launches in 2012. Karlsen declined to identify the satellites, but industry officials said two of the launches are for Intelsat and one for Eutelsat.

 

China increasingly active

China Great Wall Industry Corp., whose Long March vehicle family had 19 launches in 2011, a record for the vehicle, said all Long March versions combined are expected to launch 20 satellites in 2012, plus the Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou 10 spacecraft to dock with the Tiangong module in low Earth orbit.

Chinese government demand for launches has been more than enough to keep Long March busy despite the fact that current U.S. technology transfer regulations effectively bar the export of U.S.-built satellite parts to China.

China’s launch and satellite manufacturing industry have focused on selling services abroad for customers whose satellites have no prohibited U.S. parts. China Great Wall has bundled its launch-services offer with China Aerospace Corp.’s DFH-4 satellite frame to offer customers a turnkey service, with government export-credit financing occasionally included as well.

In 2012, China Great Wall plans to launch two satellites for APT Satellite Holdings of Hong Kong aboard Long March 3B rockets, plus the VRSS-1 Earth observation satellite for Venezuela aboard a Long March 2D vehicle.

The VRSS-1 represents a first export win for an Earth observation satellite for China’s satellite manufacturing sector if you exclude the CBERS series of Earth observation spacecraft China is building in cooperation with Brazil.

CBERS-03 is scheduled for launch in 2012 aboard a Long March 4B vehicle, according to China Great Wall.

Russia’s ISS Reshetnev satellite builder of Krasnoyarsk has employed a similar strategy in recent years, offering customers a bundled satellite and launch, sometimes as a co-passenger with a Russian government telecommunications spacecraft, aboard a Proton rocket contracted outside of ILS.

Reshetnev and Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy in 2011 agreed to strengthen their longstanding partnership, raising the possibility of co-producing future satellites with costs in Russian rubles, avoiding the foreign exchange disadvantages of the euro.

 

Up and coming

OHB AG of Bremen, Germany, also is targeting the commercial market with its Small Geo telecommunications satellite design, developed with financing from the 19-nation European Space Agency. The first Small-Geo product, a satellite for commercial fleet operator Hispasat of Spain, is scheduled for launch in 2013.

On the launch services side of the market, the major entrant in 2011 was Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif. After its 2010 contract win to launch up to 72 Iridium low-orbiting mobile communications satellites starting in 2015, SpaceX booked contracts with Thaicom of Thailand and SES for commercial geostationary satellite launches.

The launch of the SES 8 satellite in 2013 will depend on SpaceX’s qualification of a new motor and fairing for its Falcon 9 rocket.

The other new entrant into the telecommunications satellite launch market is India’s GSLV vehicle, featuring an Indian-built cryogenic upper stage. Long in development and having suffered launch failures, the GSLV is scheduled to launch again in 2012.