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2012 Brings Good News, Bad News for Commercial Launch Industry

Phil Slack. Credit:ILS photo

PARIS — There was good news and bad news for the global commercial launch industry in 2012.

Starting with the good: Sea Launch AG of Bern, Switzerland, is back in business following its financial reorganization and conducted three successful launches in 2012. Supply chain issues are being worked out, Sea Launch President Kjell Karlsen says, and the company should be able to reach its planned rhythm of four launches per year starting in 2014.

Coupled with the return to regular flight was the full exoneration of Sea Launch in two solar-array problems that occurred on Space Systems/Loral-built satellites launched in 2004 and 2012. It was a satellite issue that had nothing to do with the Sea Launch vehicle, an independent board of inquiry concluded.

More good news: Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket, which generally carries two telecommunications satellites at a time, had an exceptionally good run in 2012 — seven launches, six of them carrying two telecommunications customers. The vehicle has now gone a decade without a failure with 53 consecutive successes.

Still more: China’s Long March rocket series added more proof to its reliability argument in 2012 and continued to have the confidence of global insurance underwriters. While the reforms to U.S. technology export policy signed into law by U.S. President Barack Obama apparently will not affect a decade-long U.S. ban on exporting U.S. satellites or many of their components to China for launch, the Long March series is attracting new business — including a Spanish startup planning a lunar mission.

And one more: Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has taken over management of Japan’s H-2B rocket from the Japanese government, raising hope that this vehicle’s price might go down as the private sector hunts for economies.

Now for the less-good news: The Indian GSLV rocket’s entry into the market remains unclear although the Indian Space Research Organisation appears to have kept it as a high priority. Russia’s new Angara rocket is in a similar situation following the difficulties the Angara engine has had aboard South Korea’s new KSLV rocket. South Korean officials are expected to conduct a launch in early 2013.

Proton Failures

And the flat-out bad news: Russia’s Proton vehicle, which with Ariane 5 has been a pillar of the commercial market in the past 15 years, suffered a failure in December, the vehicle’s third in 16 months.

For the customer aboard the December flight, Gazprom Space Systems’ Yamal-402 telecommunications satellite, the results are not catastrophic — 11.5 years of in-orbit service instead of the contracted 15 and the hoped-for 19 years.

But for International Launch Services (ILS) of Reston, Va., December’s premature shutdown of the Proton Breeze-M upper stage, coming just four months after the previous anomaly, was a body blow following the August failure, the removal of its chief executive by majority shareholder Khrunichev of Moscow and the lawsuit against its former chief technical officer for misappropriation of funds.

ILS’s long-time chief financial officer, Phil Slack, has been appointed chief executive.

In a Jan. 9 interview, Slack said ILS could not speculate on when it would return to flight until it had reviewed the recommendations of the board of inquiry into the December failure. The inquiry, spearheaded by Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, has been completed and will be sent to Khrunichev in the coming days, Slack said.

Khrunichev will then review the document for security issues before forwarding it to ILS, which will convene its own Failure Review Oversight Board. Slack said this board should be convened in late January, assuming there are no hiccups in the redaction for ILS of the inquiry board’s findings.

Before the December failure, ILS, which has 16 commercial satellite launches in its backlog, had scheduled between seven and nine commercial launches for 2013, with the assumption that the Russian government would use three or four additional Protons for government payloads.

Slack said that since the December failure ILS has organized weekly updates for its customers informing them of the status of the inquiry. “Unfortunately, we can’t commit to dates for them yet,” Slack said. “We are not going to fly until we are confident that the corrective actions have been implemented. Our customers have been very understanding.”

Slack said Khrunichev and ILS, even before the December failure, had agreed to widen the number of Proton components that are classed as “critical items” and subjected to special quality-assurance reviews. Also under way is a full evaluation of the Breeze-M upper stage with a view to improving its reliability.

Arianespace, SpaceX

Someone new to the satellite telecommunications market might look at this year’s tally of commercial launch contracts and conclude that ILS’s temporary absence is no big deal. Arianespace of Evry, France, and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., won 18 of the 22 orders for geostationary-orbiting telecommunications satellites that were contracted in 2012.

The Arianespace total is in keeping with the European launch-services operator’s past market share. But the ILS share is way down from previous years, a fact that may have to do with the Proton’s recent performance.

SpaceX’s striking contract haul in 2012 belies that company’s startup status. The rocket it is preparing for its commercial telecommunications missions, the Falcon 9 v1.1, has never flown and is in many respects a new vehicle given the number of major subsystems that are changed relative to the Falcon 9.

SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said in November that the company expects to launch four or five times in 2013, including a final flight of the current Falcon 9 and three or four launches of the more-powerful v1.1 variant.

Satellite fleet operator SES of Luxembourg’s SES-8 satellite is scheduled to be the first commercial geostationary-orbit launch for SpaceX. The launch is scheduled around July, but SES has conditioned the flight on SpaceX proving the new engine and fairing configuration beforehand — not to geostationary orbit, but nonetheless a flight. SpaceX has said it has time to conduct the demonstration with another customer and to prepare for the SES-8 flight, in addition to carrying out its commercial cargo delivery contract with NASA for the international space station.

SES has booked a slot on an Ariane 5 rocket as a backup in case SpaceX cannot launch on time, but would need to give six months’ notice to Arianespace to secure a slot. As of Jan. 8, SES had not notified the European operator of any intention to change vehicles for SES-8, Arianespace Chairman Jean-Yves Le Gall said.

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