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Russian rocket failure hits satellite industry

At 6.47am (GMT) on May 16th a Russian Proton rocket exploded shortly after take-off from the Kazakhstan cosmodrome. It was carrying the Centenario/Mexsat satellite for the Mexican government. This is the fourth such explosion and the various investigation boards now examining what went wrong will severely delay upcoming launches planned by Eutelsat, Inmarsat and Intelsat.

The launch was organised via International Launch Services (ILS) which is based in Virginia, USA but is majority Russian-owned and handles all the commercial launches for the Proton rocket system.

ILS has about $1 billion of back-orders covering about 22 launches.

As to what happened, ILS says only that an “anomaly” occurred about 490 seconds after launch.  The most recent batch of problems started in December 2012, with another in July 2013, and last year a failure occurred in May. Each failure was followed by a long period of investigation designed to cure the problem.  Each investigation caused a total stoppage of launch preparations in Kazakhstan. The 2012 failure impacted launches for 108 days; the 2013 problem delayed launches for 89 days, while last year’s failure took a massive 136 days before launches resumed.

Inmarsat is the next ‘Western’ satellite in the Proton queue, and was scheduled for next week. It is unlikely to now happen much before September. Following on from Inmarsat are scheduled launches for Turksat, two Eutelsat craft (9B and 36C) a Russian RSCC satellite, and a satellite for Intelsat (I-31).

Each of these commercial delays is likely to slip by 90-100 days and damaging revenues for each of the operators concerned.

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