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Rocket Oversupply or Not, Satellite Operators Still Struggle To Secure Launches

The launch of SES-8 on the debut flight of the SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket has suffered multiple delays. Credit: Orbital Sciences artist's concept

PARIS — Commercial launch service providers say the market is in a chronic state of oversupply and that they have the numbers — their capacity versus the annual demand, and their low profitability — to prove it.

Any attempt by satellite fleet operators to encourage new entrants, they say, is nothing more than a case of customers in a buyers’ market trying to squeeze suppliers to accept subsistence-level prices while they maintain their 80 percent-plus gross profit margins.

Satellite fleet operators, especially the larger ones such as Intelsat of Luxembourg and Washington, SES of Luxembourg and Eutelsat of Paris, see the world through another lens.

Through that lens, they say, securing launches is one of their biggest headaches.

A current example: the situation SES is struggling with. Three satellites scheduled for launch on three different vehicles are all late, and for reasons that have nothing in common and nothing to do with the satellite hardware.

The first, SES-8, is perhaps the least surprising in that it is to be aboard the inaugural launch to geostationary orbit — the destination of most commercial telecommunications satellites — of the Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket.

The launch, for which SES paid well under $60 million, has suffered multiple delays as Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX works through issues related to bringing the vehicle to operational status. Given the low price paid, SES is reluctant to move the satellite to another rocket despite the months-long delay. The company is still hoping for a launch in November or December. The original contract in 2011 called for an early 2013 launch.

A second satellite, Astra 2E, was scheduled for launch this summer aboard a Russian Proton rocket, a launch organized by commercial services provider International Launch Services (ILS) of Reston, Va. The launch was subsequently delayed following a July 2 Proton failure, then rescheduled for mid-September.

A defective valve on the Proton’s first stage forced another delay, and the launch is now scheduled to occur no sooner than Sept. 30 — assuming the Kazakh government gives the necessary authorizations. ILS Proton launches are from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, which is Russian-run but located in Kazakh territory.

A third satellite, Astra 5B, was scheduled for launch this summer aboard a European Ariane 5 rocket, which is neither a new market entry nor recovering from a recent failure. But Ariane 5 generally needs two passengers to fly at a time.

In the case of SES’s Astra 5B, the co-passenger was the Optus-10 satellite owned by Optus of Australia. Earlier this year Optus pulled the satellite from the Arianespace manifest while Optus’ owner, SingTel, sought to sell Optus’ satellite operations.

Finding smaller satellites to fit in the lower seat on Ariane 5 has never been easy for the Arianespace commercial launch consortium of Evry, France. With Optus-10 pulled, Astra 5B was forced to wait out the search for a compatible co-passenger. It is now scheduled for launch in mid-December with the Hispasat Amazonas 4A satellite owned by Hispasat of Spain.

 

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