SES’s purchase of 10 satellite launch slots from two launch-service suppliers is an example of the kind of buying power that large satellite-fleet operators are assumed to have but, in fact, rarely exercise, according to industry officials familiar with the arrangement.
The June 18 announcement, which was expected, forces the two rocket suppliers, and ( ) to give availability guarantees that may be unprecedented in the industry and show just how spooked companies like SES were by the January failure of a Sea Launch rocket.
More than the fact that the failure destroyed the SES New Skies NSS-8 satellite, the failure resulted in a dash for launcher alternatives and threw into sharp relief the fragility of an industry that is supposed to have more launch options than it needs.
SES is trying to avoid a repeat by insisting that Arianespace and ILS adopt what SES Chairman Romain Bausch called a “full dual slot mutual backup policy.”
Each of the 10 satellites – five for ILS, five for Arianespace – that are part of the bulk launcher procurement features one primary launcher and a backup guaranteed by the other company. In addition, each company agrees to make two launch slots available for each satellite, to avoid a case in which satellite delays and a subsequent launcher delay grounds one of them.
“Each satellite has got at least four guaranteed launch slots,” said one industry official. “Each company has its two slots spaced, say, six to nine
months apart, so that you are pretty much certain to get several launch opportunities in a given year, even if your satellite is late coming out of the factory.”
The launches in question cover 10 of the approximately 18 satellites that the SES group – SES Americom, SES Astra, SES New Skies and Ciel – is expected to require between 2009 and 2013.
SES spokesman Yves Feltes said the launch of the remaining satellites could be added onto the existing agreement, contracted individually with one of these companies or become part of a separate arrangement with some other launch services supplier.
“You’re not out of the game just because you are out of this announcement,” Feltes said June 18.
Arianespace and ILS officials said that despite the coordination of launch manifests necessary for the contract, neither company talked to the other. Instead, SES officials ferried from Arianespace to ILS and back again over a period of about nine months to craft the arrangement.
Two officials said SES did not secure exceptionally low prices for its launches despite the lure of a multi-launch deal. Instead, the prices per satellite were near industry-standard levels, but with the mutual backup, two-slot guarantee and other add-ons provided as part of the package.
Officials said another advantage is that SES will be able to switch from one launch-services provider to the other as late as three or four months before the launch – without penalty.
The agreement with McLean, Va.-based ILS covers the Russian Proton rocket. The contract with Evry, France-based Arianespace covers heavy-lift Ariane 5 vehicles, but also may
include the medium-lift Soyuz rocket, the latter being a venerable Russian vehicle that, starting in 2009, will be operated from Europe’s Guiana Space Center launch site. Soyuz can lift only relatively small telecommunications satellites into orbit.
also is involved in the 10-satellite deal to the extent that the Japanese vehicle will be called into service in the event the Proton and Ariane 5 vehicles are unavailable.
Long Beach, Calif.-based Sea Launch Co. would appear to be the principal casualty of the SES contract. Sea Launch is recovering from its January failure and expects to resume operations from its ocean-going platform late this year. Sea Launch
also is inaugurating a launch base at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan – site of the ILS Proton operations – to compete with the Arianespace-operated Soyuz for lower-cost, smaller satellite launches.