Rarely has the delicate balance between risk and reward been so clearly on display as it has been since the unexplained May 31 failure of a large commercial telecom satellite to deploy one of its two solar arrays.
While the owner of the Intelsat-19 satellite, Luxembourg- and Washington-based Intelsat, is able to analyze what went wrong at its leisure, such is not the case for two fleet operators preparing to loft similarly built satellites from two separate launch sites in the coming days.
Both the SES-5 satellite, owned by SES of Luxembourg, and the EchoStar 17 spacecraft owned by U.S.-based Hughes Network Systems/EchoStar, feature solar array panel-deployment mechanisms built by Space Systems/Loral that are nearly identical to those on Intelsat-19.
As a result, plans to launch both satellites ground to a halt following the May 31 Intelsat-19 failure, which happened shortly after liftoff atop a Sea Launch rocket from an ocean-based platform on the equator.
For SES and EchoStar, every day that passes without their satellites in orbit means mounting revenue losses, leaving both companies anxious to see their spacecraft lofted to orbit. For the respective launch-service providers—Reston, Va.-based International Launch Services (ILS), which markets Russia's Proton vehicle, and Europe's Arianespace consortium—maintaining the current schedule despite any uncertainties means sticking to their 2012 business plans.
The situation is more complicated for Arianespace, which has the added pressure of launching a second spacecraft, Europe's MSG-3 meteorological satellite, aboard the EchoStar 17 mission.
Since the Intelsat-19 failure, Sea Launch and satellite builder Space Systems/Loral have issued statements using the same argument to point the finger of blame at one another. The only other time a similar failure occurred was in 2004, when Sea Launch delivered the Loral-built Telstar 14/Estrela do Sul-1 satellite to geostationary transfer orbit.
In both cases, Sea Launch and Space Systems/Loral detected an out-of-boundary pressure event some 72 sec. after liftoff. And, in both cases, the satellite was released with a solar array panel that refused to deploy.
Last week Bern, Switzerland-based Sea Launch released preliminary “quick look” telemetry data, saying its rocket performed nominally during launch all the way through separation of the payload fairing and satellite release. But it will take at least several days, if not more, to fully analyze all the telemetry available to Sea Launch.
In the meantime, the clock is ticking for EchoStar, SES, ILS, Arianespace and Space Systems/Loral, not to mention the satellite operators' insurers, who have hundreds of millions of dollars riding on the SES-5 and EchoStar 17 satellites.
On June 11, Arianespace said it had rescheduled liftoff of MSG-3 and EchoStar 17 to July 5 from June 19 to give Hughes/EchoStar time to conduct additional checks of the Ka-band satellite. The following day, ILS said it would go ahead with a June 20 launch of SES-5 by a Proton-M/Breeze-M rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. But it is entirely possible that no definitive answers about what happened to Intelsat-19 will be available before these launch dates.