The successful
inaugural flight
of the Land Launch rocket April 28
sets up a long-awaited commercial duel in the market to loft
medium-class satellites, especially telecommunications satellites that up to now have had limited launch options.


Starting in late 2009, when a Russian Soyuz rocket is expected to begin operating from Europe’s Guiana Space Center in French Guiana, this Soyuz version and Land Launch will be direct competitors to launch satellites weighing around 3,000 kilograms or less.


size category
continues to account for around 25 percent of the commercial satellites ordered each year despite a trend in which the
average weight of such craft is gradually increasing


The continued appeal of smaller satellites to
even large commercial fleet operators has sparked fresh investment in this class of satellite by manufacturers
including Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va.; Astrium Satellites of Europe, which has created a joint venture to build lighter spacecraft with the Indian Space Research Organisation; Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy
; and both OHB-System of Germany and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. of Britain, using European Space Agency funding. Lockheed Martin Commercial Space Systems of Newtown, Pa., continues to sell the lightest versions of its A2100 platform as well.


Up to now, the only financially feasible launch option for satellites in this weight class
was to await an opportunity to fly
as a secondary payload aboard a European Ariane 5 rocket operated by the Arianespace consortium of Evry, France.


Arianespace will be managing Soyuz launches from Europe’s equatorial launch site and will compete directly with Sea Launch Co. of Long Beach, Calif., which is marketing Land Launch.


Operating from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, a Land Launch Zenit-3SLB rocket carried Israel’s Amos-3 satellite directly into geostationary orbit.


At 1,270-kilograms, the satellite
was light enough to allow direct injection into geostationary orbit, rather than into the temporary transfer orbit into which most heavy telecommunications satellites are sent. From there, they use their on
board engines to climb
to their final geostationary position.


Land Launch uses
essentially the same three-stage Zenit rocket as that operated by Sea Launch
from a floating platform on the equator in the Pacific Ocean. That location enables the Sea Launch rocket to place payloads weighing up to 6,000 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit.


is located at about 46 degrees
north latitude. From that site, the Zenit-3SLB is capable of placing satellites weighing
about 3,600 kilograms into
geostationary transfer orbit. For missions involving direct injection into final geostationary position, Land Launch’s upper limit is 1,600 kilograms, according to the company’s user’s manual.


The European version of Soyuz is capable of carrying satellites weighing up to around 3,100 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit.


In addition to satellites heading to geostationary orbit, Land Launch and the French Guiana-launched
Soyuz also will appeal to operators of low-orbiting constellations of communications satellites.


For the
inaugural Land Launch flight
, it was Space International Services (SIS) Ltd. of Moscow that negotiated the
contract with Amos-3 owner Spacecom Ltd. of Tel Aviv. Sea Launch was not involved. SIS is owned by the Zenit 3 builders.


For future commercial launches, Sea Launch will contract with SIS after signing
contracts with satellite owners, a relationship similar to that between
International Launch Services of McLean, Va., and the builders of Russia’s Proton rocket.


Chicago-based Boeing Co. is a 40 percent equity owner of Sea Launch but does not have an ownership stake in Land Launch.


Sea Launch
President Rob Peckham said the company has booked six commercial Land Launch missions
, to be conducted in 2008 and 2009. Four of these contracts are with Intelsat Ltd. of Bermuda and Washington. Two of the Intelsat contracts are for Intelsat’s own satellites;
the other two are launches Intelsat
ordered several years ago and now cannot use. They have been sold to Telesat Canada to launch the Telstar 11N satellite, and to Measat of Malaysia for the Measat-1R satellite.


The remaining two contracts are with AsiaSat of Hong Kong for the AsiaSat-5 and with SES of Luxembourg for the AMC-21 satellite.


In an April 24 interview, Peckham said that starting around 2010, Sea Launch should be able to support three to four Land Launch missions per year while conducting six campaigns of its own.

Sea Launch in the past has faced
supply chain issues on production of the three-stage Zenit
, and Peckham said the company will closely monitor that now that two launch systems are drawing on the same Russian-Ukrainian contracting base for the same hardware.


“We are still closely monitoring the supply chain as there are not an infinite number of boosters that can come out of the factory,” Peckham said. “What we are certain of is that we will not sell more launchers than we have. Some say the market for this class of satellite is growing. I would say it is stable, and we see three or four opportunities for us per year going forward.”