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Satellite 2014 Launch Panel: Launch Vehicles Matching Capability to Requirement

March 11, 2014
Phil Slack

During the Satellite 2014 conference in Washington, DC, thousands of industry executives from all over the world convened to discuss the state of the industry. The launch panel on 11 March was moderated by Senior Space Analyst Marco Caceres of the Teal Group Corporation; panelists included ILS President Phil Slack, and representatives from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services, Arianespace, Sea Launch, SpaceX, and China Great Wall Industry.

Without a reliable ride to orbit, the global satellite-enabled marketplace would be dead on the launch pad. For decades a stable of highly reliable rockets has propelled the development of businesses worldwide. Through innovation or adaptation, new boosters have now entered the market. How are the primary launch service companies adjusting to a marketplace increasingly segmented by payload and mission? What new technologies show promise for the twin goals of increased reliability and lowered costs? Is the current vogue for smaller spacecraft and hosted payloads perturbing the established market, or is it creating newer, smaller, pieces of a growing pie? How will new opportunities such as resupply of the International Space Station alter the competitive set?

The following is a summary of ILS’ participation in the panel discussion.

Reaching Milestones

Proton has an extensive heritage as the heavy-lift workhorse vehicle of the launch industry.  Since 1965, Proton has launched 394 times; 85 of these launches were ILS missions. Proton will launch its 400th mission later this year, and will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. Last year, ILS celebrated the 20th year of the commercialization of Proton.

Proton has launched every major commercial satellite platform and has the flexibility to launch to a variety of orbits in either a single or dual spacecraft configuration.  The vehicle also launches all heavy spacecraft for the Russian government, which combined with the commercial Proton manifest provides a very stable business. Proton has recently increased its lift capability to over 6.35 metric tons to GTO, and 6.55 metric tons to SSTO.

Over the last six years, Proton has averaged 10 launches per year which is more than our competitors, Ariane 5, Sea Launch and Falcon 9 combined. Proton ended 2013 with five successful missions over the last three months. ILS and Khrunichev expect 2014 to see 10-12 Proton launches including up to five ILS missions.

Emerging Opportunities in the Market

There is currently a growing trend towards lower-mass hybrid and electric propulsion spacecraft that can be launched in a dual stacked configuration. While dual launch is not a new development for Proton, the lower-mass trend represents an expansion in a targeted market. Replacing liquid propellant with electric propulsion provides significant weight savings for an equivalent performing satellite and allows for a stacked pair of satellites to be launched on a dedicated vehicle.  Besides the significant cost-savings advantage of a dual launch, the ILS Proton also offers customers the ability to decrease their orbit-raising time significantly. Due to the capabilities of the ILS Proton, orbit-raising time of the spacecraft can be drastically reduced from over eight months to a fraction of that time. A shorter timespan from launch insertion point to orbital slot reduces the radiation risk to the spacecraft. The reduction in time also allows operators to begin generating revenue much earlier thereby significantly improving business plans. 

The dual stacked configuration is typical for Russian Federal missions and has been flown commercially as well.  Proton allows customers the flexibility to pair spacecraft and is currently working with manufacturers and operators who are proposing pairings of two spacecraft with up to 10KW each. ILS and Khrunichev are planning to increase the length of the PLF by 2.4 meters additional envelope to accommodate all spacecraft pairings. This will allow maximum flexibility to pair any combination of different manufacturer’s spacecraft.

EXIAR Financing

Export Insurance Agency of Russia (EXIAR) financing is available for ILS customers who may not otherwise have access to a competitive low-cost financing option. ILS introduced EXIAR to its customers in 2013, and several major international banks have completed or are completing their due diligence process of the EXIAR offering.  There are several advantages to an EXIAR credit guarantee over those offered by Coface and Exim Bank that will greatly improve the Proton value proposition for ILS customers.  For example, in terms of satellites, EXIAR will look at a project with a Russian launcher, a foreign satellite and payload and will consider supporting the whole project - not just the launcher.

Supply and Demand

Over the past 15-20 years, demand has remained relatively stable. In the past, there has been an oversupply of launchers in the marketplace exceeding the demand. However, over the past five years, 85-90 percent of the market was served by Proton and Arianespace.

In the next few years, in terms of satellite orders, the current prediction is that the market will remain flat at about 20-25 per year. In terms of launch orders there looks to be a comparable quantity. Perhaps as more economical satellite solutions develop, demand will increase and additional supply will be able to be economically viable. There will be providers who come and go; however, ILS has an advantage of a robust government business base that provides a stable platform in which to conduct commercial launches.

ILS offers competitive pricing when you consider the overall value offering of a Proton launch service especially when taking into account the combination of Proton’s heritage, lift capability, mission flexibility, schedule assurance and launch tempo as well as equitable commercial terms.

Industry Challenges

Given that Proton is launching 10 times a year on average, ILS focuses on executing each mission successfully  and on schedule. With regards to new developments in the marketplace, one of the challenges ILS will be addressing is identifying and successfully pairing different spacecraft and operators together on a single dual launch.

Industry Perspective

Slack also commented on what makes the industry interesting and exciting for him. He cited two major things: signing a new contract for a launch, especially after a hard-fought competition, and experiencing a live launch—“with the thunderous sound and reverberation of the lift-off, then watching the flight—which on a clear night can be seen up to first and second stage separation.”  However, the most gratifying part of the launch is mission success and the customers’ satisfaction after a job well done.

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ILS President Phil Slack

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