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Satellite operators in long wait for launch

Imagine this: Two out of the only three businesses which can launch your satellites are – in effect – wholly unavailable, and the third is booked up through to 2017. What do you do next?

That’s the dilemma facing senior managers at Eutelsat, SES, Iridium, Orbcomm, Viasat, Spacecom/Amos of Israel, SkyPerfect/JSAT of Japan, Inmarsat/Arabsat and ABS of Bermuda.

If the list sounds like a Who’s Who of the satellite industry then it is because it does represent just about every major player in the business. Each of these had reserved launches on SpaceX’s Falcon rockets for lifting into orbit between now and the end of 2017.

And this list doesn’t include another dozen or so non-commercial clients, usually for a Government space agency or university, or NASA’s needs to keep the International Space Station fuelled and fed.

Add to this list of SpaceX clients to those waiting patiently in line for a Russian Proton launch, still not approved for a return to operations following its own problems back in May, and by any measure the situation is a true nightmare.

While the inevitable delays will affect some commercial clients by pushing revenue expectations out by a quarter-year or two, for some operators it is a true situation of ‘life or death’.

For example, Iridium is a struggling user of satellite for a global sat-phone service and badly needs to replace some of its orbiting spacecraft. They had expected seven launches aboard SpaceX rockets between 2016-2017, in order to orbit their second-generation Iridium Next satellites. One report this week suggested the SpaceX failure represented “terrible news” for Iridium, and hints that SpaceX might be out of action for up to six months.

The problem for Iridium is that it is a Number 44 or 45 on the SpaceX launch manifest, and last weekend’s failure was Flight 19. The report says that Iridium might not now get into space until late-2017 or even 2018, and is thus a very real risk to Iridium’s overall business plan.

The only hope for all of these major players is for an early return to work, and perhaps a speedier frequency of launchers. SpaceX has – to date – had a launch every 49 days or so, and experts are hoping for a shift to a near-28 days launch cycle.  Rival Arianespace has also been improving its launch rate and this year (with three types of launch vehicles) has managed seven satellites.  The same hope applies to a speedy return tio work for Russia’s Proton, which is also capable of a near-monthly flight plan.

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