TerreStar-1 Launch Slips as Insurers Request More Info

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PARIS — Insurance underwriters covering TerreStar Networks Inc.’s $200 million policy for the launch and first year of operations of the TerreStar-1 satellite have requested additional information on a similar satellite’s in-orbit antenna problem before signing off on the upcoming launch, according to industry officials.

Reston, Va.-based TerreStar, whose mobile communications satellite has been at Europe’s Guiana SpaceCenter launch site in
French Guiana awaiting a late-June launch, has agreed to delay the launch until the first half of July as a result.

The 6,700-kilogram TerreStar-1, built by Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif., features an 18-meter-diameter S-band antenna built by Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Fla., that is launched in folded position before deploying, umbrella-style, once in orbit.

A 12-meter version of the same antenna was launched in April aboard Eutelsat’s W2A telecommunications satellite. The S-band antenna is designed to support a mobile communications service planned by Solaris Mobile of Dublin, a joint venture of Eutelsat and SES of Luxembourg.

The W2A antenna was deployed in orbit without incident April 9 but ground teams since have discovered a problem that is likely to limit its power and the geographic reach of the Solaris Mobile service unless it is corrected.

In the weeks since the issue was disclosed, neither Eutelsat nor Solaris has been able to determine the root cause of the anomaly, industry officials said.

Space Systems/Loral and Harris approved the shipment of TerreStar-1 to the French Guiana launch site May 15, having verified to their satisfaction that the satellite’s antenna did not need to be reworked in light of the W2A problem.

But in the intervening four weeks, having received no clarifications on what happened on W2A, at least one of the underwriters backing the TerreStar-1 insurance package has asked that the TerreStar-1 launch be delayed.

Because Eutelsat and W2A prime contractor Thales Alenia Space of Cannes, France, announced a trouble-free deployment of the antenna, attention has focused on a possible manufacturing defect that somehow escaped detection during pre-launch testing, and on the launch itself.

The W2A satellite was launched aboard an International Launch Services (ILS) Proton Breeze M rocket from Russia’s Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

In response to Space News inquiries, Reston, Va.-based ILS on June 11 released the following statement from Jim Bonner, the company’s chief technology officer: “ILS and [Proton builder Khrunichev of Moscow] have evaluated the flight results of the W2A launch and determined the launch environments were within ICD [interface control document, or users’ manual] specification and well below [spacecraft] test levels. There are no launch vehicle-related anomalies from the prior flight and the Proton Breeze M is a ‘Go’ for launch of Sirius FM5.”

Eutelsat spokeswoman Vanessa O’Connor said June 12 that the board of inquiry looking into the W2A antenna issue has not concluded its work and has not yet determined what happened. Because of that, O’Connor said, Eutelsat has been unable to give its own insurers a clear picture of the anomaly.

“These are very complex antennas and it’s not surprising that, as of today, the commission of inquiry has been unable to find the root cause,” O’Connor said.

TerreStar General Counsel Douglas Brandon said June 11 that the company is confident it will be cleared to launch TerreStar-1 by mid-July even if the Eutelsat W2A investigation has not isolated the cause of the problem.

“It makes people more comfortable that we allow a little more time,” Brandon said. “Arianespace [the launch services provider] has told us there is no problem with a launch in early July, so there is no large cost to waiting a bit longer.”

Industry officials said the U.S. space technology export regulatory regime, known as ITAR – International Traffic in Arms Regulations – slows the flow of information about hardware failures any time U.S. gear is involved.

To discuss possible failure scenarios with satellite insurers – most of whom are not American – Harris would need special authorizations specifying exactly what the company can say. In some cases, Harris would need U.S. State Department representatives present in the room in which a discussion of the W2A antenna occurs.

TerreStar paid its underwriters $28.1 million for a $200 million policy covering TerreStar-1’s launch and its first year of in-orbit operations. The policy includes $50 million in coverage of TerreStar’s ground-based beam-forming system, which allows TerreStar to adjust the satellite’s coverage from the ground.