PARIS — The three launch vehicles that carry the vast majority of the world’s commercial satellites into orbit are now all back in business with International Launch Services’s successful launch of the EchoStar-21 satellite.
The June 8 launch placed the 6,900-kilogram EchoStar-21 into a transfer orbit after a more than nine-hour flight. Satellite manufacturer Space Systems Loral said EchoStar 21 was healthy and sending signals.
For European Commission, two very late licensees
Assuming at least a four-month in-orbit checkout, EchoStar-21 will arrive ready for service some nine months after a deadline set by the European Commission. EchoStar Corp.’s EchoStar Mobile Ltd. of Ireland won a commission license to provide S-band mobile satellite services in the 28-nation European Union on condition of having the service ready by December 2016.
The year-long grounding of Russia’s Proton rocket and the near-impossibility of EchoStar’s finding an alternative launch provider accounted for the delay.
How the commission will react is unclear. Industry officials say it may do nothing, or may impose a symbolic fine on EchoStar for violating the terms of its license.
The other license-holder, Inmarsat of London, is doing no better at respecting the commission’s deadline. Inmarsat’s EuropaSat S-band mobile communications payload, which is sharing a platform with fleet operator Arabsat’s Hellas Sat, is scheduled for launch on June 28 aboard a European Ariane 5 rocket.
Inmarsat was able to secure a slot in the Ariane 5 upper berth in December after concluding that its nominal launch-service provider, SpaceX, was too far behind schedule to assure a timely liftoff.
Inmarsat and EchoStar officials have said they expect to see no major penalties imposed by the commission because of the delays.
It’s not just smallsats that have launch-access issues
Beyond the European licensing issues, the travails of EchoStar and Inmarsat in securing launches has shown the continued fragility of the commercial launch market. The lack of options for small satellites head for low Earth orbit is often discussed in the business, but the problem extends to the geostationary-orbit market for large telecommunications satellites.
The backlog of launches in recent months has been compounded by three events:
— In June 2016, an ILS Proton successfully orbited an Intelsat satellite. But Proton prime contractor Khrunichev Space Center subsequently discovered quality-control issues at the rocket’s engine maker.
ILS President Kirk Pysher said that while the issue, which related to an improper solder, likely would not have caused any operational issue, Khrunichev — already struggling with Proton reliability in the past five years — elected to ground the vehicle and conduct a root-and-branch investigation:
The result was the grounding of a principal Russian government strategic asset for 12 months, and the sidelining of one of the three commercial-market mainstays.
— In September 2016, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded during prelaunch testing, destroying a $200 million satellite and taking the Falcon 9 out of the commercial rotation.
SpaceX returned to operations in January and has since stepped up its launch cadence. The company may finally show in 2017 the kind of launch rhythm it has long promised the market, even before a second Falcon 9 launch site opens in Texas:
— With Proton and Falcon 9 down, Europe’s Arianespace became the sole carrier available to most owners of large commercial satellites. China’s rocket remains largely — but not completely — sidelined from the commercial market by a U.S. government ban on the export of U.S. satellite parts to China.
But in March, Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport in South America was shut down by a general strike on the part of a population that decried the Third World living conditions in a territory that is, in the legal sense, as much a part of France as Alaska is part of the United States.
The strike lasted about six weeks and ended with the exhaustion of the strikers and a promise by the French government — the one since replaced following presidential elections — of a multibillion-euro aid program.
Arianespace returned to flight on May 4 with the Ariane 5 and says it will be able to conduct all the launches it had scheduled for 2017 despite the strike.
The company has been able to ease part of the stress on its manifest by launching satellites for commercial fleet operators SES and Hispasat on Europeanized Russian Soyuz rockets:
ILS returns to a favorable market
ILS’s return to operations returns the commercial launch market to full strength. ILS said it will conduct two more missions this year: of the Hispsat Amazonas 5 and AsiaSat’s AsiaSat-9.
Two of the world’s largest fleet operators, Intelsat and Eutelsat, have booked multi-launch deals for Proton, with one of the Eutelsat satellites going up on a new Proton Medium and a second to be launched with another spacecraft in a rare dual-launch Proton commercial flight.
It will take several trouble-free launches for the ILS Proton to fully regain the confidence of the commercial market. But ILS has in its favor a market whose main players insist on having at least three viable launch alternatives. For the moment there is no other option beyond Arianespace, SpaceX and ILS.
Secondly, the space insurance market remains soft, meaning launch premiums are at historically low levels. The premium penalty paid by ILS customers as underwriters account for the Proton’s reliability history is not huge, and ILS has said it can adjust its prices accordingly.