Proton Failure Pinches Already Tight Commercial Launch Outlook

The Sept. 6 failure of a commercial Proton-M rocket following an anomalyin the vehicle?s second stage will shut down one of the world?s three principalcommercial-launch vehicles just eight months after one of the other two ? theSea Launch Co. Zenit 3SL ? was grounded because of its own failure.

As was thecase with the Sea Launch incident, the most serious consequence ofthe Proton mishap likely will be felt not by the affected customer, Japan?s JSATCorp., but by other commercial operators dependingon a launch in the coming months. They have nowhere to turn given the currentstate of the global commercial-launch industry.

The Proton?ssecond-stage engine failure occurred slightly more than twominutes after liftoff from the Russian-run Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.The JCSAT-11 telecommunications satellite, owned by JSAT?of Tokyo, was destroyed.

Thesatellite and launch were insured for about $185 million, according toinsurance industry officials. JSAT had planned to use the satellite as anin-orbit backup for its current eight-satellite fleet, and the company said thefailure will have no impact on its business. JSAT immediately ordered areplacement satellite from the JCSAT-11 builder, Lockheed Martin CommercialSpace Systems of Newtown, Pa.

InternationalLaunch Services (ILS) of McLean, Va., which sells commercial Proton launches,was scheduled to loft three moresatellites this year, including?the Americom 14 and Sirius 4spacecraft. Luxembourg-based SES said in a Sept. 6 statement that the failurewould have no impact on its 2007 financial results.

Alsoscheduled for a Proton launch this year was Telenor Satellite Broadcasting?s Thor 5 ? now labeled Thor 2R ? whichis badly needed because the company?sthree satellites are full and two are scheduled for retirement in 2010 and 2011.

CatoHalsaa, chief executive of Telenor Satellite Broadcasting of Norway, said Sept.6 that the company is reviewing its options as it awaits?news on when Proton will return toservice.

Numerousother companies will be in the same position as Teleport given the current squeeze on thecommercial-launch market and the lack of available alternatives.

Sea LaunchPresident Rob Peckham said at the annual Euroconsult satellite-financeconference here Sept. 5 that, assuming Sea Launch?s return to flight occurs inOctober as scheduled, the company?plans to make a second launchtoward the end of the year. For 2008, Sea Launch is solidlybooked, assuming its manifested satellite payloads arrive onschedule, Peckham said.

Arianespace, whose Ariane 5 vehiclecan loft two medium-size telecommunicationssatellites at a time, is fully booked for the remainderof 2007. Arianespace may or may not have a slot availablein 2008 ? again depending on whether scheduled customers are on time with theirpayloads, Arianespace Chief Executive Jean-Yves Le Gall said in a Sept. 6interview.

?This latest event should drive hometo satellite operators the need to reserve slots for 2009 as early as they can,?Le Gall said. ?As for what Arianespace?s availability is, we are increasing ourAriane 5 launch rate from six this year, to seven ? and maybe eight ? in 2008,and to eight in 2009.?

The?Atlas 5 rocket, built by UnitedLaunch Alliance and marketed commercially by Lockheed Martin, is booked also, mainly with U.S. AirForce satellites, until sometime in 2009 at the earliest.

Sea Launch?sZenit 3SL, Proton-M and Europe?s Ariane 5 rocket all were showing full ornearly full manifests?even before the Sea Launch failure,which caused a near-panic among some satelliteowners as they sought alternatives.

ILS wasable to accommodate a couple of Sea Launch customers on the Proton-M manifestin the wake of the January crash, as was Arianespace.

But severalSea Launch customers whose business plans called for 2007 in-service dates havebeen unable to switch, and this will undoubtedly be the case for customers on Proton?s waiting list.

Stephen T. O?Neill, president of BoeingSatellite Systems International of El Segundo, Calif., which has several customerswaiting for Sea Launch to resume operations, said during the Euroconsultconference Sept. 5 that, in light of what happened with Sea Launch, ?a launchfailure in the next 12 months could have a serious effect on some companies? businessmodels.??

Meanwhile,the Russian government and ILS announcedthat each would form failure-review teams to assess what went wrong with theProton-M?s second stage. Russian government satellites account for at least 50percent of the Proton?s near-term launch manifest.

Satelliteinsurance brokers meeting here Sept. 6 for the Euroconsult conference said theProton failure almost certainly will scuttle anychance for profitability this year in the space-insurance sector.

Eric J.Allensbach, senior space underwriter and managing director of Swiss Re, saidthe Sea Launch and Proton-M insurance claims, combined with the deferral ofpremiums that were expected from subsequent launches of these vehicles that nowwill not take place this year,?will make 2007 a money-losing year.

Pierre-EricLys, managing director of insurance underwriter SpaceCo of Paris, agreed that2007 would end in a loss.

The Russianspace agency, Roskosmos, and Proton-M prime contractor Khrunichev Space Centerof Moscow said the failure occurred when Proton was at an altitude of 47 miles(76 kilometers).

The Kazakh government, which leasesthe Baikonur Cosmodrome site to Russia for $115 million per year, said Sept. 7that some 15 pieces of the rocket or its payload have been recovered. Kazakhauthorities said they would conduct their own investigation into the pollutioneffects of the Proton?s fuel falling once again on Kazakh territory.?Past launch failures at Baikonurhave resulted in cash payouts by Russia and in delayed launches as the twogovernments negotiated return-to-flight conditions.

Press statements posted on theRoskosmos and Khrunichev Web sites said debris from the failure came down about31 miles (50 kilometers) southwest of the Kazakh city of Dzhezkazgan and thatno injuries or property destruction were reported.?In the wake of the crash, Kazakh authoritiesthreatened to impose tougher safety requirements on Baikonur launches. ?

SimonSaradzhyan contributed to this article from Moscow.

  • Video Interplayer: NASA's STS-118 Shuttle Mission
  • GALLERY: STS-118 Launch Day in Pictures
  • GALLERY: Twenty Great Rocket Launches


Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

Charles Q. Choi
Contributing Writer

Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for and Live Science. He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica. Visit him at