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Boeing Defends Superbird’s Status

By | May 31, 2004

      Officials at The Boeing Co. [BA] acknowledge the Superbird-6 satellite, built by its El Segundo, Calif.-based satellite-manufacturing team for Tokyo-based Space Communications Corp., may have lost at least a full year of its design life after unexpectedly needing to burn additional onboard fuel to reach proper orbit.

      The satellite ended up in a “very low” orbit following its launch by an Atlas rocket April 15, and the extra fuel was needed to lift the spacecraft into its intended “super- synchronous” orbit, Boeing officials said. McLean, Va.-based International Launch Services, which markets the Lockheed Martin [LMT]-built Atlas rocket, countered that its highly reliable launch vehicle put the satellite into the precise position requested by the satellite manufacturer.

      Boeing, once the industry’s leading satellite manufacturer prior to export control changes by the U.S. government coupled with in-orbit problems with cutting-edge technology used by the company in building new satellites in the late 1990s, is taking a cautious approach to assessing any blame.

      “What we are trying to do in a private and business-like manner is to determine where the responsibility lies in the launch parameters,” said Marta Newhart, director of Boeing’s Space and Intelligence Systems.

      Boeing officials estimated last week that the satellite in question still has enough fuel to last for 12.9 years, compared with the spacecraft’s expected life span of between 13 and 14 years. However, Newhart indicated in a phone interview with Satellite News that the Superbird-6 had successfully deployed its solar arrays last Wednesday.

      It is possible that the arrays were damaged due to the lower-than-expected orbit of the satellite that initially followed its launch but a full assessment had yet to take place by press time. The schedule for deploying the arrays initially had been delayed due to the need to lift the satellite into proper orbit.

      A positive sign from the Superbird-6 is that the spacecraft is transmitting “pretty close to normal power levels,” Newhart said. However, those signals alone do not indicate that the satellite may be free of problems, other than the reduced fuel available on the spacecraft.

      Reduced Life Span

      D.K. Sachdev, president of the SpaceTel Consultancy in Vienna, Va., said, “Super bird 6 did have to expend extra fuel to raise the perigee from a dangerously low altitude. Therefore, some impact on the lifetime is unavoidable.”

      With the Atlas family of launch vehicles maintaining a flawless record, speculation has arisen that Boeing may not have taken into account the lunar gravitational pull in providing ILS with the launch parameters.

      After several decades of Atlas launches that include a number in super synchronous orbit, it is a bit “difficult to reconcile” the differences of opinion about the transfer orbit parameters between two of the world’s most experienced organizations [in their respective fields], Sachdev said.

      Michelle Lyle, vice president of corporate communications at ILS, left no doubt that her company performed its mission exactly as requested.

      “The Atlas IIAS launched the Superbird satellite to the precise orbital position which had been provided to ILS by Boeing…before the launch,” Lyle said. “Independent data has subsequently confirmed that the Atlas IIAS performed flawlessly and met all contractual requirements.”

      In addition, no Boeing officials have notified ILS of any issues or concerns regarding the Superbird-6 spacecraft or the launch, Lyle continued, nor has Boeing provided ILS with any updates about the current operational status of the Superbird-6.

      In addition, the April 15 launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., marked the 26th Atlas launch of a Boeing 601 bus. The parameters for the launch given by ILS prior to the mission were for an apogee altitude of 65,138 nautical miles (120,635 kilometers), 90 nautical miles (167 kilometers) and an inclination of 25.5 degrees. The mission itself met those parameters, Lyle said.

      Initial Success Declared

      In an April 15 press release, Boeing reported the satellite designed to provide telecommunications and data services in the Asia-Pacific region was launched “successfully.”

      The spacecraft separated from the launch vehicle approximately 31 minutes after launch. One minute later, its first signals were received at a Telemetry, Tracking and Control Station at Hartebeesthoek, South Africa, Boeing officials said, confirming normal operation.

      “With this successful launch and signal acquisition behind us, we now look ahead to several weeks of in-orbit testing to validate that Superbird-6 is ready to support SCC’s business,” according to a statement shortly after the launch from David Ryan, president of Boeing Satellite Systems International (BSS). “Thanks to the dedication of the Boeing team and the rigorous assembly, integration and testing procedures in place at BSS, I am fully confident in the long-term quality and reliability of this spacecraft.”

      The satellite’s ultimate destination is 158 degrees East longitude, where it would provide telecommunication services using a payload of 23 active Ku-band transponders and four Ka-band transponders. The spacecraft’s steerable Ka-band spot beam also would enable SCC to offer enhanced data rate Ka-band service to areas across a broad swathe of the Pacific region.

      Satellite operator SCC was established in 1985 by Mitsubishi Corporation (MC), Mitsubishi Electric Corporation (MELCO), and other Mitsubishi Group Companies. SCC now operates four communications satellites named Superbird-A, B2, C, and D in four orbital slots.

      SCC officials could not be reached to provide a current status report about the Superbird-6 by press time.

      –Paul Dykewicz

      (Michelle Lyle, ILS, 571/633-7463; Marta Newhart, Boeing, 562/547-9345; D.K. Sachdev, SpaceTel Consultancy, 703/757-5880)