Proton Sets Sights on Ariane-led Dual Launch Market

Modified excerpt from an article
February 12, 2010

International Launch Services announced this week it will place a commercial European-owned, U.S.-built satellite on the same Proton rocket as a Russian-built payload, potentially making the workhorse booster more competitive with the market-leading Ariane 5 launcher. The contracted launch period starts on December 1, 2010.

Built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., SES 3 will help replace aging satellites providing communications services to the United States and Caribbean.

Based in nearby Reston, Va., ILS is now marketing the Proton rocket for tandem launches of Orbital-built satellites under a program called Proton Duo. Orbital specializes in small and medium-class communications satellites weighing less than 7,000 pounds.

"We embarked on a program with Orbital Sciences to configure two of their Star buses to have a dual capability. We have trademarked that Proton Duo. That is a unique configuration that is only launching two Orbital Sciences satellites at a time," said Frank McKenna, ILS president.

The Proton rocket and Breeze M upper stage are capable of launching more than 13,500 pounds of cargo to a typical geosynchronous transfer orbit, the destination for most communications satellites. But many commercial broadcasting spacecraft are smaller, leaving much of the Proton's capacity unused.

The Proton Duo program reduces the rocket's price in the international launch market and puts the Proton in direct competition with Arianespace, the commercial firm overseeing the Ariane 5 and commercial Soyuz rockets.

"It's a good arrangement because now Proton heavy-lift capability is used for launching two small satellites at an average cost-per-kilogram at 20 percent less than what is available on competing alternatives, either Ariane 5 or their introductory offer of Soyuz from Kourou," McKenna said.

Cost savings also come from increased production of Proton vehicles by Khrunichev. The Russian contractor is now building between 12 and 14 Proton rockets annually.

At least eight commercial Proton flights and four or five Russian government missions are planned for 2010. A launch in early 2011 could move up to this year, and there may be an extra Proton vehicle available for a new mission late this year, according to McKenna.

Arianespace almost exclusively launches two satellites at a time on the cryogenic Ariane 5 ECA rocket, which can haul 10 metric tons, or 22,000 pounds, to geosynchronous transfer orbit.

Jean-Yves Le Gall, Arianespace chairman and CEO, said he was not concerned about Proton's entry into the dual launch market, citing the Ariane 5's superb reliability record over 35 missions since 2002.

"What I observe is that up to a few months ago, [ILS] used to say that the dual launch was not viable. I noticed that now they move to dual launch. It clearly shows that our ideas are not so bad," Le Gall told Spaceflight Now on Friday.

The pairing of SES 3 and Kazsat 2 is a separate dual launch configuration of a commercial and Russian-sponsored payload, and not part of the Proton Duo service. Kazsat 2 will relay television and other communications signals across Kazakhstan, but the spacecraft was manufactured by Khrunichev under an arrangement with the Russian government.

"What is designated as SES 3 will now be launched in a configuration as a co-passenger with Kazsat 2," McKenna said. "So that's not two Orbital satellites married together. It's one Orbital and one Khrunichev satellite."

In the past, Russian payloads and ILS commercial satellites were launched on different rockets.

In an interview on Friday, McKenna said ILS and Orbital are in "serious discussions" with several satellite operators, and the first Proton Duo mission could be finalized in the first half of 2010.

Khrunichev most recently demonstrated the dual launch configuration when it delivered two Russian communications satellites to space in February 2009. Proton’s success at launching multiple spacecraft to different orbits was also demonstrated with the Iridium, Glonass, Cosmos and Raduga missions.

The Proton has also launched lightweight communications satellites as the sole passenger before, including Thursday night's flight that placed the 5,400-pound Intelsat 16 spacecraft directly in a geosynchronous orbit 23,000 miles above Earth.

The direct injection allows communications satellites to preserve precious fuel that would otherwise be burned to raise the craft's orbit. Intelsat 16 is designed to live for up to 15 years, but it carries another propellant to survive 25 years, Intelsat officials said.

McKenna said satellite operators he has polled would trade the extra fuel and satellite life for lower prices.

"We are getting demand for pairing and lower launch costs," McKenna told Spaceflight Now.

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