PARIS — Conducting seven successful commercial flights in 2013, which is about what it planned, International Launch Services (ILS) almost shrugged off the July failure of a Proton rocket on a government mission.
As was the case in 2012, Reston, Va.-based ILS’s commercial Proton rocket appeared to occupy a parallel universe from that of the rocket’s government version — except that both versions are, in principle, just about identical.
Insurance underwriters say they have penalized ILS in the past couple of years because of these failures even though the mishaps occurred with government satellites and were thus not heavily insured.
ILS was able to conduct three more flights after the July failure, an indication of just how quickly Proton, and the commercial market, can return to business as usual with Proton.
For 2014, ILS plans up to six commercial flights, a figure that may move depending on how Proton’s government manifest plays out. First up for ILS will be the Turksat 4A telecommunications satellite for Turkish operator Turksat, scheduled for launch in mid-February.
In an interview, ILS President Phil Slack said satellites currently in the market for launch slots — mainly starting in 2016, as 2014 and 2015 are about full — are medium-class spacecraft and not the 5,500-kilogram or more heavy spacecraft that ILS views as its core market.
That might be bad news, but Slack said ILS is making it a priority to pitch Proton’s dual-launch capability. Proton can carry a 6,350-kilogram satellite into geostationary transfer orbit, and a 6,550-kilogram spacecraft into supersynchronous orbit, a destination preferred by some commercial fleet operators.
“Lots of people don’t know it, but Proton has conducted 30 dual missions since 1999, mainly for Russian government satellites,” he said. “We performed one commercial dual mission in 2011. So we think we have an excellent solution for midsize satellites that can be launched together and we are working with customers on a technical solution adapted to their satellites’ specific design.”
ILS is also designing a longer fairing, an extension necessary to carry two midsize satellites one on top of the other. Slack said ILS has concluded that its current 4-meter-diameter fairing is wide enough, and that making it a bit longer is sufficient for the current market demand.
Slack said ILS can offer owners of all-electric satellites the possibility of carrying two of these spacecraft at a time to a destination much closer to their final position than what is offered by the competition.
One drawback of all-electric satellites, whose electric propulsion saves hundreds of kilograms in launch weight, is that they take several months from their transfer-orbit drop-off points to travel to final geostationary position.
“Taking the example of Boeing’s 702SP, we can reduce the orbit-raising time from five to six months to around six to eight weeks,” Slack said, referring to an all-electric satellite design scheduled to debut in 2014 on a Space Exploration Technologies Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket.