Telecom Satellite Orders Projected To Rise Again in 2006

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The commercial satellite market is expected to continue its rebound in 2006 with as many as 20 telecommunications spacecraft to be ordered by global satellite-fleet operators, according to industry forecasts.

As is usually the case, satellite manufacturers vary in their level of optimism for the coming year. Expected orders often slip, and some operators in the past have weighed whether to split an order for one large satellite into contracts for two smaller spacecraft.

But with satellite transponder-lease prices firming up in recent months and fleet-renewal programs unavoidable at some companies, industry officials say a measured optimism for 2006 is justified.

“2005 has been a very good year, with 18 firm orders for geostationary satellites — up 100 percent compared to 2004, when there were nine,” said David W. Thompson, chairman of Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., whose company builds spacecraft at the light end of the market. “We expect 20-22 units to be ordered in 2006.”

Space News’ tabulation of orders in 2004 concluded that 12 commercial geostationary satellites were ordered that year, not the nine the Thompson found. But the trend upward appears clear.

In a conference call with financial analysts Oct. 20, Thompson said Orbital expects that about a third of the new satellite orders in 2006 will be for small satellites of the sort that his company builds. In that segment of the market, Orbital competes with products offered by Alcatel Alenia Space of France and Italy and its partner, NPO PM of Russia; and with EADS Astrium of Europe and its new partner, Antrix of India.

Lockheed Martin also has been able to win competitions for relatively small satellites, and the Bethesda, Md.-based company recently told financial analysts that its commercial satellite division, Lockheed Martin Commercial Space Systems, is expected to grow in the coming years.

Lockheed Martin Chief Financial Officer Christopher E. Kubasik said the commercial satellite business will be profitable in 2006, although operating margins will be short of the 9 percent now expected of the company’s entire Space Systems division — which includes more-profitable government satellites as well as launch vehicles .

Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif., which has rebounded strongly in the past two years, also projects there will be about 20 commercial orders in 2006, according to Bernard L. Schwartz, chairman of parent company Loral Space and Communications Ltd.

Alcatel Alenia Space President Pascale Sourisse, who traditionally has been among the most cautious of satellite manufacturing officials when it comes to forecasts, said 2006’s crop probably will end up at between 15 and 20 satellites. In any given year, Alcatel Alenia sells as many satellite communications payloads as it does full satellites.

Antoine Bouvier, chief executive of Europe’s EADS Astrium, also was cautious about new orders, saying 20 would be the upper limit of what he expects for 2006. In addition to commercial telecommunications satellites, EADS Astrium has developed a line of high-resolution optical Earth observation satellites that have found a market for in Asia.

Boeing Satellite Systems International of El Segundo, Calif., has declined to make full-market assessments, in part because the company has restricted itself to the market for complex, high-power satellites. Boeing in recent months has been less active in the commercial market than its competitors, saying today’s winning bids are too often at unattractive prices.