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A Sirius Situation

By | September 7, 2000

      Successful Launch Temporarily Deflects Attention Away From Damaged Spare

      The successful launch of the Sirius 2 satellite Sept. 5 temporarily should take some heat off Sirius Satellite Radio Inc. [SIRI], which had one of its satellites damaged during construction late last month.

      Sirius established a communications link with the Space Systems/Loral [LOR]-built satellite at 8:08 a.m. EDT, Sept. 5.

      Considering the damage that has occurred to the Sirius 4 spare, a successful launch for Sirius 2 was more important for the future DARS service provider.

      “With two birds up, launch risk has been materially reduced,” reported New York-based investment firm C.E. Unterberg, Towbin. “Constellation deployment probability (now one launch) stands at about 87 percent excluding a spare.”

      Unterberg is calculating its deployment probability based on the launch record of the Proton K/DM launch vehicle, since there is only one more satellite left to be launched to complete the constellation and the fact that a ground spare could be delayed for an undetermined amount of time.

      “With the availability of a ground spare, we calculate that the probability would improve to about 96 percent,” reported Towbin.

      …Sirius 4 Damaged

      The successful launch can only take attention away from a potentially greater problem looming over the horizon for Sirius, that being the damaged Sirius 4 satellite.

      Sirius-4 is the ground spare that would be launched in the event of a failure of the three-satellite constellation. But with the launch of Sirius 3 scheduled for October, any other problems, especially a launch failure, could cause a serious headache for Sirius.

      While Sirius has made no official announcement as to the extent of the damage to Sirius 4, sources have indicated that the backup has sustained significant damage in a manufacturing mishap that will delay its scheduled delivery beyond December and likely force the manufacturer to pay hefty penalties.

      Engineers from Sirius and SS/L, a subsidiary of Loral Space & Communications [LOR], are inspecting the Sirius 4 satellite at SS/L’s plant in Palo Alto, Calif., but have yet to determine the full severity of the damage. However, repairs will be necessary to salvage the satellite, valued between $80-100 million, prominent industry engineers said.

      “Our ground spare satellite was damaged by Loral during assembly,” said Mindy Kramer, a Sirius spokeswoman. “Some components were damaged during the assembly process. But again, this is our ground spare. This will not impact the upcoming launch of and Sirius 3.”

      Marshall Kaplan, the founder of Mobile Satellite News’ sister publication Launchspace and a Potomac, Md.-based satellite and rocket engineer, said reports that the satellite dropped from a roll-over device during manufacture and bounced several times suggest that major damage may have occurred. The risk of such damage may well require much or all of the Sirius 4 satellite to be taken apart and inspected.

      “When a satellite suffers a fall, it is extremely difficult to evaluate without extensive disassembly, inspection and testing of almost every component and subsystem on the spacecraft,” Kaplan said. “The reason is simply that the design and selection of components are based on certain shock and load environments, usually due to the environment created by the launch vehicle.

      “When a satellite accidentally falls from any height, it is likely that it will experience a non-planned shock loading, and some damage will occur. If the height is more than a few inches, significant damage to many elements of the vehicle can be expected. For example, any pressurized tanks or other devices may have to be replaced. This is also true for such items as delicate electronic devices, heat pipes, and valves.” he explained.

      “Physical alignments within the structure may be altered as a result of the fall, resulting in major structural rework, or possible replacement of the satellite’s main structure. Depending on the severity and exact dynamics of the fall, the cost of a fix could range from a minor amount to complete replacement of the satellite,” Kaplan said.

      Another industry source said the satellite’s heat pipes cracked open and certain high-power amplifiers were damaged severely. That amount of damage would be repairable, but a delivery delay of at least several months would not be unreasonable. The length of delay may be affected by how amenable Sirius is to accepting SS/L’s proposed repairs and testing schedule.

      …Wall Street Remains Optimistic

      Because the damaged satellite is a spare and not part of the original constellation, the impact of the damage to the company’s financial position should be minimal, assuming Sirius 3 goes off without a hitch and all the in-orbit assets incur no problems until the spare is completed.

      “We continue to hope that Sirius 4 is unnecessary, and that the company deploys Sirius 2 and Sirius 3,” reported Unterberg. “Sirius Satellite Radio remains our top pick in the satellite space. Launches are important catalysts, helping to drive the company toward our year-end target of $100.”

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