The owners of the AMC-14 telecommunications satellite that was placed into a bad orbit March 15 during the launch of a Proton-M rocket are likely to decide by early April a strategy for getting the spacecraft to its intended orbital slot. The choices include sending the spacecraft around the Moon for a gravity-assist maneuver or raising it directly into its intended slot in geostationary orbit, according to SES of Luxembourg, which owns the satellite, and other industry officials.
In either case, officials said, the satellite will need to use so much of its onboard fuel that its expected 15-year service life is likely to be cut substantially. The satellite is insured for about $192 million, officials said.
SES has leased the entire satellite to U.S. satellite-television provider EchoStar of Littleton, Colo., for the life of the satellite, giving the Lockheed Martin-built satellite an especially important place in SES's future revenue plans.
AMC-14 has been left in an orbit with an apogee of nearly 28,000 kilometers and a perigee of some 6,250 kilometers following the unexplained premature shutdown of the Proton's Breeze-M upper stage during the second of a planned three ignitions. The Russian space agency, Roskosmos, announced following the launch that the Breeze-M stage shut down 32 minutes into its second burn, which is designed to last for 34 minutes and 26 seconds.
For the AMC-14 launch, the Breeze M was supposed to have performed a third burn, to last for six minutes and 10 seconds, before releasing the AMC-14 satellite into its planned orbit with a nearly 36,000-kilometer apogee and a perigee of 6,250 kilometers.
The mishap is the second Breeze-M failure in 25 months and the third overall for the commercial Proton-M rocket, whose sales are managed by International Launch Services (ILS) of McLean, Va. ILS officials had said they expected to perform six or seven commercial launches in 2008, which was expected to reflect the rebound in the commercial-satellite market.
Next up for ILS is the launch of a satellite for mobile satellite services operator Inmarsat of London, which only weeks earlier had canceled a contract for a 2009 Atlas 5 rocket launch with Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services in favor of the earlier Proton-M date. Inmarsat had been counting on a late-April launch.
Inmarsat Chief Executive Andy Sukawaty said March 18 that he remained optimistic that Proton will return to flight in short order, and that the Inmarsat 4 F3 satellite will be in orbit well before the end of the year.
Following a similar Breeze-M failure in February 2006, which placed the Arabsat 4A satellite in a useless orbit, a Russian government commission concluded that the problem was an unidentified foreign object that compromised the Breeze-M's performance. The Arabsat consortium of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, after considering a lunar gravity-assist maneuver to put the satellite where it belonged, ultimately concluded that it was not worth the effort. Arabsat 4A subsequently was guided into the atmosphere and destroyed during re-entry.
Inmarsat Chief Technical Officer Gene Jilg said in a March 17 interview that the company has little choice but to wait for the conclusions of the Russian government commission investigating the failure. Jilg said Inmarsat and its insurers will need to be fully reassured that Proton manufacturers have understood the problem before agreeing to put Inmarsat's satellite on the next commercial Proton flight.
Returning to its original plan of an Atlas 5 launch is no longer an option. That mid-2009 launch slot has since been sold to the U.S. Air Force, Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services President Dave Markham said. The earliest available Atlas 5 date is now 2010, Markham said.
Proton's prime contractor, Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center of Moscow, in 2007 was given full control of Proton's component builders, including the Isayev Design Bureau of Chemical Machine-Building (KBKhM), which builds the Breeze-M motor in question.
A Khrunichev official said the company is aware that Proton's recent performance is raising concerns among customers. He said Khrunichev intends to "sort out things" at KBKhM. The official said that despite the February 2007 government decree that gave Khrunichev full authority over Proton contractors, it was not until this year that the reorganization was completed.