PARIS — Bulgaria’s BulgariaSat on May 5 said its BulgariaSat-1 telecommunications satellite would be launched in mid-June aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket employing the same first stage that launched 10 Iridium mobile communications satellites into low Earth orbit in January.
If the launch occurs on schedule, it would offer proof that despite the September 2016 on-pad failure, Falcon 9 operations are approaching the kind of launch rhythm that SpaceX has long promised and its competitors have long feared.
“We don’t know when it will arrive, but the steamroller is on the horizon and when it arrives it’s going to be a real challenge for us,” said a French government official in 2014, referring to SpaceX’s launch capacity.
It was this kind of anxiety that caused Europe’s space-launch sector, which has ruled the global commercial launch-service roost for more than two decades, to pivot to the low-cost Ariane 6 rocket, scheduled to enter service in 2020.
Ariane 6 is designed to be 40-50% less costly to build than the current Ariane 5 vehicle and come close to, if not exactly match, today’s Falcon 9 prices of around $65 million for a 4,000-to-5,000-kilogram telecommunications satellite headed to geostationary orbit.
A backlog of 70 missions valued at ‘more than $10 billion’
SpaceX’s March exploit of carrying an SES telecommunications satellite into orbit with a previously used first stage could open the door to substantial price reductions — but only if SpaceX can raise its operational cadence.
“With this historic achievement in our long-standing partnership with SpaceX, we can expect considerable improvements,” SES Chief Executive Karim Michel Sabbagh said in an April 28 conference call with investors. “A, in the cadence; as well as B, in the economics of satellite launches going forward. It is, therefore, a model that we will increasingly leverage.”
In May 3 testimony to the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Technology Committee, Patricia Cooper, SpaceX vice president for satellite government affairs, said the company’s backlog totaled “nearly 70 missions on manifest, representing more than $10 billion in signed contracts.”
SpaceX officials have said so often, for so long, that a launch rate of twice per month, every month, was imminent that it’s easy to miss the arrival of the real thing.
But in recent weeks, companies under fiduciary obligation to give straight talk to investors have provided approximate dates for their launches, all to occur by late June. These companies have included Luxembourg-based SES before the March launch of SES-10; London-based Inmarsat; Luxembourg- and Washington-based Intelsat; and Iridium Communications of McLean, Virginia
Satellite fleet operators forecasting launch dates is often a triumph of hope over experience. This has been true for SpaceX launches but also often enough for other launch-service providers.
For Inmarsat, Intelsat, Iridium and SES especially, their 2017 financial forecasts are pegged to launch dates and the start of revenue generation. A missed launch date could mean a missed earnings target, which can be costly for these publicly traded companies.
SpaceX has launched five times so far in 2017. Recent statements by customers awaiting launch suggest it will launch five more times by the end of June, putting it on a 20-launch pace for the year.
As of May 5, according to the satellites’ owners, SpaceX has scheduled the launch of the Inmarsat-5 F4; a SpaceX Dragon capsule carrying supplies to the International Space Station for NASA; BulgariaSat-1; Intelsat-35e; and 10 more Iridium satellites — all before July.
BulgariaSat-1 contract signed 11 years ago
BulgariaSat-1 was built by SSL of Palo Alto, California, and carries 32 Ku-band transponders for domestic and regional direct-to-home television. The project has been long in development — BulgariaSat signed its launch contract with SpaceX in 2006.
The launch had been scheduled for 2016 but was among the many SpaceX customers who have been delayed by the two Falcon 9 failures, one in 2015 and the second in September 2016.
BulgariaSat Chief Executive Maxim Zayakov, in a May 5 statement, nonetheless covered SpaceX with praise.
“When we entrusted the launch of our satellite, SpaceX was still a new company while we were an established player,” Zayakov said. “Now, 11 years later, SpaceX is much larger than our company. I am convinced that, regardless of the business environment, those who have their feet firmly on the ground and look for solutions rather than excuses can reach the stars. This is a chance for Bulgaria to join the efforts to develop these new aspects of the space industry.”
BulgariaSat said Bulsatcom, an established telecommunications company, will use about 46% of the satellite’s capacity for its networks in Bulgaria and Serbia.
Bulgaria will be the latest small nation — with a population of 7.2 million, it’s about the same size as the U.S. state of Washington — to develop its own national telecommunications satellite.
For these nations, national pride and a strategy of national autonomy outweigh the dubious economics of developing their own orbital infrastructure as opposed to negotiating long-term deals with established satellite fleet operators.
Zayakov said SpaceX’s goal of reusing major parts of its rockets “is a breakthrough in space technology that makes it possible for smaller countries and companies to launch their own satellites.”