Loral Escapes Launch Fallout

By | July 19, 2004 | Feature

The availability of substantial additional fuel onboard Loral Space and Communications’ Telstar 18 satellite allowed the spacecraft to be maneuvered into its proper orbital position, and it may even allow the bird exceed its 13-year design life, following a flawed launch June 28.

The positive result is a big relief for officials at Loral’s Long Beach, Calif.-based launch services provider Sea Launch and its insurers, all of whom will be able to avoid a claim. An investigation is ongoing into what caused the Sea Launch Zenit-3SL upper stage to stop its second burn some 54 seconds prematurely, forcing the satellite to go into a much lower initial orbit than planned.

The initial low orbit of the satellite caused a scare but the orbiter emitted an encouraging signal to a ground station in Western Australia during the evening of the launch that indicated it was in “good condition,” said Paula Korn, director of communications at Sea Launch. Space Systems/Loral then started raising the satellite to its proper orbit, she explained.

Patrick DeWitt, president of Space Systems/Loral, seized the opportunity to tout the satellite’s capabilities by pointing out the spacecraft was able to reach orbit despite the launch-vehicle anomaly. The reserve fuel onboard allowed his company’s engineers to “correct” for the launch shortfall and ensure the mission’s success, he bragged.

“The satellite had a lot of extra fuel on it,” Korn said. “We are able to launch the heaviest satellites, up to 6,000 kilograms, because of the performance of the rocket and our [sea-based] launch site on the equator.”

The Telstar 18 weighed 4,640 kilograms – far less than the capacity of the rocket to handle – allowing a greater amount of additional fuel to be loaded onto the satellite, Korn said.

Engineers at Space Systems/Loral raised the spacecraft to its correct orbit using a series of carefully planned maneuvers in combination with thruster burns that took advantage of the additional fuel onboard the bird. The geostationary Telstar 18 satellite has a specified service life of 13 years, and it maintains station-keeping and orbital stability by using bi-propellant propulsion and momentum-bias systems.

The Space Systems/Loral-built 1300 model satellite reached its in-orbit testing position at 142 degrees East longitude last week. Ultimately, it will be located at 138 degrees East longitude, where it will offer a wide variety of video and telecommunications services across Asia. The satellite, carrying a total of 54 active transponders, 16 high-powered Ku-band transponders and 38 C-band transponders, will continue in-orbit testing until its scheduled service start this August.

When all the testing is completed, Telstar 18 not only will transmit new cable programming, and direct-to-home broadcasting services and telecommunications services in Asia, but it is intended to host Loral Skynet’s two-way, IP-based networking solution, called SkyReach, beginning next year. The SkyReach service already is available through a different satellite and is in use by several customers throughout the Americas to create an instant infrastructure using a VSAT network that connects offices within a city or around the globe.

Loral, still operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy court protection, arranged to obtain funding for a portion of the satellite project’s cost from APT Satellite Company Limited of Hong Kong. APT initially will use 68.5 percent of the Telstar 18 capacity for Apstar-V services. The number of transponders used by APT will be reduced over time until the Hong Kong company ultimately would only use 54 percent of the satellite’s capacity.

With an inordinate number of satellites suffering in-orbit failures in recent years, Space Systems/Loral has reason to be pleased with the performance of its product. The successful maneuvering of the satellite into its intended position should only enhance the manufacturer’s stature within the industry. Sea Launch, on the other hand, needs to discover what caused the upper stage glitch and how to avoid any recurrence. Customers waiting to use the rocket and others considering signing contracts with the company will be on edge until corrective action is taken.

Sea Launch has delivered three launches so far this year, and it expects to complete two more by year’s-end, Korn said. The next satellite to be launched after the Intelsat mission this fall would be a commercial mission for a yet-to-be identified, U.S.-based company.

“We do anticipate that our next launch will be delayed by a few weeks,” Korn said. That mission would carry another Space Systems/Loral-built satellite, the 5,500-kilogram Intelsat Americas 8, into geosynchronous-transfer orbit sometime in the September-October time frame.

The Intelsat Americas 8 satellite is designed with Ku-band, C-band and Ka-band transponders that would serve North and South America. The satellite originally was ordered by Loral Space but it ultimately was sold to Intelsat earlier this year along with other North American satellites of Loral Skynet for $1.1 billion.

Problems Remain

But there still are some bugaboos Sea Launch has to consider, including insurance implications.

“I am sure the insurance people are happy that the satellite is expected to achieve it full design life,” said Mark Chartrand, a Baltimore-based satellite consultant. “There have been so many insurance claims over the past few years that the insurers have been getting very skittish about all satellite underwriting.”

Neil Bauer, an Acton, Mass.-based satellite consultant, said future customers of Sea Launch that still need to buy insurance may be asked to pay slightly higher rates due to the anomaly. “It is fortunate Loral was able to load extra fuel onto the satellite,” Bauer added. –Paul Dykewicz

(John McCarthy, Loral, 212/338-5345; Paula Korn, Sea Launch, 562/4999-4729; Mark Chartrand, 410/235-6932; Neil Bauer, 978-263-1142)

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