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With Chinese Option Blocked, European-built Satellite To Fly Atop Falcon 9

The Turkmen satellite will be launched in late 2014 or early 2015 aboard SpaceX’s upgraded Falcon 9. Credit: SpaceX photo

LE BOURGET, France — Franco-Italian satellite builder Thales Alenia Space has selected a Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) Falcon 9 rocket to launch Turkmenistan’s first telecommunications satellite after being blocked by U.S. export rules from shipping the satellite to China for launch, European officials said.

The decision, which was expected, signals at least the temporary end of what has become known as Thales Alenia Space’s “ITAR-free” communications satellite design, which has been used in the past decade to launch about a half-dozen Thales-built satellites and satellite electronics payloads aboard Chinese Long March rockets. This hardware was touted as devoid of U.S. components and thus beyond the reach of U.S. export policy, which bars the shipment of U.S. space technology to China.

In recent months, even as it has moved to make the International Trade in Arms Regulations (ITAR) and the U.S. Munitions List less restrictive for satellite components, the U.S. State Department has added to the list certain satellite components previously not covered.

The result is that it has become all but impossible for Cannes, France-based Thales Alenia Space to launch a telecommunications satellite on Chinese rockets using the current design and supply chain. Without a long-term investment to replace what U.S.-built parts it does use with parts made elsewhere, Thales Alenia Space will no longer have an ITAR-free product.

Thales Alenia Space officials declined to comment on the issue, but industry officials said the ITAR rule changes, enabled by legislation passed late in 2012, are too late for the Turkmen satellite.

With the Chinese excluded, the two finalists in the competition to launch the Turkmen satellite were Europe’s Ariane 5 ECA rocket and the SpaceX Falcon 9.

SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif., advertises Falcon 9 prices at around $60 million to place a telecommunications satellite into geostationary transfer orbit over the equator. 

The Turkmen satellite will be launched in late 2014 or early 2015 aboard SpaceX’s upgraded Falcon 9, which is expected to make its debut flight later this year.

Industry officials have said the State Department’s concerns with the ITAR-free satellite — the department has been conducting an investigation of the satellite’s component lineup since 2008 through what is called a Blue Lantern inquiry — made it likely that, sooner or later, even the most banal U.S. satellite components could be barred from shipment to China.

The proposed changes to ITAR and the U.S. Munitions List do not change any of these restrictions as they apply to China.

These industry officials said the U.S. position has evolved from one seeking to assure that sensitive U.S. technologies are not exported to China to one that is focused on preventing Western satellite owners and makers from using the Long March rocket.

The ITAR and U.S Munitions List restrictions on satellites began following a pair of mid-1990s failures of Long March rockets carrying U.S. telecommunications satellites. The U.S. government concluded that, as part of the ensuing failure-review inquiries, too many useful tips on satellite launches were provided to China by U.S. industry.

Given the degree of commonality in missile and rocket technology, the United States reasoned, slowing development of the Long March rocket as a commercial launch vehicle would also slow China’s development of missile technology.

That was the idea. But China’s domestic demand for manned spacecraft and unmanned satellites for telecommunications, navigation and science has given the Long March rocket designers a more than adequate number of contracts to maintain production and diversify the Long March family.

The vehicle now is able to attract insurance premiums that are not far above those afforded the Ariane 5 ECA vehicle.

It remains unclear whether Thales will undertake the investment needed to replace remaining U.S. parts aboard the ITAR-free platform to preserve the Chinese option for future satellite orders.

In part, the decision might rest with SpaceX. If the new-version Falcon 9 deputs successfully, and if SpaceX can maintain its current low prices as it ramps up production and conducts commercial launches, the attractiveness of China’s vehicle to commercial customers may diminish.

 

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