PARIS — The first of Britain’s Skynet 5 military telecommunications satellites has been cleared for use by British and NATO forces and has been put into immediate service to boost throughput to and from troops deployed in Afghanistan, Skynet 5 managers and British defense officials said.
The satellite, launched March 11, completed its in-orbit testing and entered full operational status May 1 at 1 degree west longitude. Carrying up to nine UHF transponders and 15 SHF-band transponders, Skynet 5A is the first of three or four identical models being built as part of a services contract in which a private company owns and operates the system.
The contract, signed in 2003 and updated in 2005, runs to 2021. Including options, it is valued at 3.66 billion British pounds ($7.3 billion) and includes the operation of the four aging Skynet 4 generation spacecraft in addition to four Skynet 5 models.
The Skynet 5A was a month late entering service under the terms of the contract. In one of many examples of the unique feature of the Skynet 5 services package, program manager Paradigm Secure Communications of Britain forfeited some of its planned revenues from the British Ministry of Defence because of the delay, and also had to purchase substitute capacity for Britain while waiting for Skynet 5A to enter service.
“Whenever we’ve had a deliverability issue, we’ve substituted capability,” Paradigm Managing Director Malcolm Peto said May 10 during a press briefing.
Darrell Midgley, global communications system integrated project team leader at the British Defence Ministry, put it more bluntly: “The delay cost them money,” Midgley said in an interview. Despite this minor glitch, Midgley said the satellite is performing as designed.
Paradigm’s next deadline under the contract is March 2008, by which time it must have launched the identical Skynet 5B spacecraft. Peto said the company has a firm late-2007 slot aboard a European Ariane 5 ECA rocket. Ariane 5 ECA vehicles, operated by the Arianespace consortium of Evry, France, launch customers in pairs, meaning the Skynet 5B launch schedule is in part dependent on the progress of its co-passenger.
The timing of the Skynet 5 in-service announcement coincided with confirmation that the European Commission was abandoning a similar private-public partnership in the construction of the Galileo satellite-navigation system.
The financial risk to Paradigm and its parent company — aerospace conglomerate EADS — was substantially reduced with the arrival of Skynet 5A in orbit. To finance the construction and launch of the satellites, Paradigm had assembled a 1.2-billion-pound financial package that was 85 percent debt.
With Skynet 5A now in orbit and performing to specifications, Paradigm is poised to become by far the most profitable business in EADS’s Astrium space division, which includes the manufacture of satellites, Ariane 5 rockets and French ballistic missiles in addition to the Astrium Services segment that is home to Paradigm.
Skynet 5 also is funneling business to Astrium Services’ sister companies. The Skynet 5 satellites are built by Astrium Satellites, and are being launched aboard Ariane 5 vehicles, for which Astrium Space Transportation is prime contractor.
Paradigm is paid based on the availability of satellite capacity to British defense forces. The company also is managing, on behalf of the British Defence Ministry, the British portion of a multi year NATO services contract that also includes contributions from the French Syracuse 3 and Italian Sicral 1 military satellite systems.
Delays in Italy’s Sicral 1 program, and a month-long service shutdown on the lone operational Sicral satellite in late 2006, have obliged Britain and France to assume a heavier portion of the NATO contract than had been foreseen for 2007.
“With two regional conflicts to manage, this has not been especially easy,” Midgley said, referring to NATO operations in Afghanistan and British forces’ presence there and in Iraq.
Italy’s Sicral 1b satellite is scheduled for launch in the first half of 2008.
EADS Chief Financial Officer Hans Peter Ring, in a May 10 conference call on the company’s first-quarter financial results, said the Paradigm business and work on the French government’s M51 ballistic missile account for Astrium’s increased revenues and pretax profit.
EADS reported that Astrium revenues were 629 million euros ($849 million) for the first three months of this year, up 28 percent over the same period a year ago. Profit before interest and tax was 10 million euros, compared to 1 million euros a year earlier.
Astrium Services, which for now is composed almost entirely of the Paradigm Skynet 5 business, accounted for 12 percent of Astrium’s revenues, EADS said.