Some Sea Launch Customers Jumping To Other Options

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  Space News Business

Some Sea Launch Customers Jumping To Other Options

By PETER B. de SELDING
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 30 March 2007
10:04 am ET


Company Says it Is Planning Three Launches in 2007


MILAN — Intelsat has switched the launch of two of its telecommunications satellites — PAS-11 and Horizons-2 — from Sea Launch to Arianespace in the hope of placing both of them into orbit this year, industry officials said March 23.

PRIVATE tabstops:<*t(0.000,0,” “,13.500,0,” “,)> Intelsat is the latest Sea Launch customer to seek other options following the Jan. 30 on-pad failure of a Sea Launch rocket that destroyed SES Global’s NSS-8 telecommunications satellite, damaged Sea Launch’s floating mid-ocean platform and grounded the vehicle and its affiliated system, Land Launch.

The failure has destabilized the global commercial-satellite business because it sidelines one of the most active commercial rockets at a time of particularly strong demand. Stephen O’Neill, president of Boeing Satellite Systems International said the commercial-launch market is more fragile now than at any time since 1986 — when the U.S. shuttle, the U.S. Delta and U.S. Titan rockets failed and left commercial satellite operators with insufficient launch capacity.

Addressing a space insurance conference here March 23 organized by Pagnanelli Risk Solutions, O’Neill said the commercial-launch bottleneck may cause Boeing to recommend a change in one of its satellite designs to permit customers a wider choice of launch-service providers.

Washington-based Intelsat had scheduled its PAS-11 and Horizons-2 to be among the first commercial customers for Land Launch, which is the same Russian-Ukrainian Zenit 3 SL vehicle that Sea Launch uses for its Pacific Ocean operations.

The two Intelsat satellites are the third and fourth Sea Launch customers that have removed satellites from the Sea Launch/Land Launch manifest to secure an early launch.

Dianne Van Beber, vice president of investor relations at Intelsat, declined March 22 to discuss the company’s launch plans, and specifically its plans for the PAS-11 and Horizons-2 satellites. Arianespace Chief Executive Jean-Yves Le Gall, addressing a space-insurance conference here March 23, said the company had signed five launch contracts so far in 2007 but had not disclosed all the customers.

Other industry officials said slots on Arianespace’s 2007 manifest recently opened up with the expected delay in the launch of the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV} cargo vessel to the international space station. Originally penciled in for a launch by September, the ATV launch has recently slipped to November at the earliest and may not occur before early 2008.

Kjell Karlsen, Sea Launch Co.’s chief financial officer said here March 23 that Sea Launch expects to return to flight in time to launch two Sea Launch rockets and one Land Launch version in 2007. He said that despite public announcements by at least one satellite owner of a switch to Arianespace, Sea Launch had been given no formal notice from any of its customers of a change in plans. “Our backlog remains unchanged since the failure,” Karlsen said.

Arianespace has already announced that it had signed a contract with Hughes Network Systems to launch Hughes’ Spaceway 3 broadband satellite in August. Spaceway 3 had been scheduled for a 2007 launch on Sea Launch. SES Global’s AMC-21 satellite also moved from Sea Launch’s Land Launch version to Arianespace. Long Beach, Calif.-based Sea Launch Co. has announced that SES Global had replaced this booking with a reservation for a yet-unidentified satellite.

Karlsen said a Russian-Ukrainian investigation has concluded that a foreign metallic object somehow found its way into the Sea Launch first-stage engine and caused the Jan. 30 failure 3.9 seconds after engine ignition.

Sea Launch’s internal failure-review board will examine the Russian-Ukrainian results starting in April and report its findings to insurers and customers in June. Meanwhile, repairs to the floating platform will continue in Long Beach or elsewhere on the U.S. West Coast.

A Russian government launch using the Land Launch platform and a two-stage version of the Zenit rocket — the Sea Launch/Land Launch system minus the rocket’s upper stage — is scheduled for this summer, Karlsen said.

Under this schedule, he said, Sea Launch would return to flight in October, with another flight in December. Land Launch would conduct one commercial launch this year following the Russian government launch.

The demand bottleneck in the commercial launch sector now may lead Boeing to modify the way it approaches contracts for large mobile satellite systems that operate from geostationary orbit, O’Neill said.

Up to now, Boeing’s geo-mobile design, using its 702 satellite frame, has not included large fuel tanks to permit the satellites to migrate from the standard geostationary transfer drop-off point to final geostationary position. By doing so, Boeing and its customers reduce the total weight of the satellite.

But this design means that such satellites can be launched only by vehicles carrying one satellite at a time into geostationary orbit — Sea Launch, the U.S. Atlas, the International Launch Services Proton-M and the few remaining GS models of the Ariane 5.

The standard-version Ariane 5ECA rocket’s business model is based on carrying two satellites at a time into geostationary transfer orbit.

When Sea Launch and the Russian Proton M vehicles were selling for relatively low prices in a launch market in a state of oversupply, this strategy worked.

But the new global commercial launch landscape — sharply higher prices, high immediate demand and, for the moment, a grounded Sea Launch — may lead satellite owners to reconsider this design, even if it affords savings in satellite production cost.

“I would suggest to all satellite owners that they consider the implication for their business of another launcher failure,” O’Neill said. “There are alternative launch options in the market today, but getting into orbit when you want to get there is questionable.”