EchoStar satellite disaster

A $250m SES Americom satellite was lost, possibly catastrophically, in the early hours of March 15.

The Americom AMC-14 satellite, planned to be leased by satellite broadcaster EchoStar, failed to reach its target orbit when the Breeze-M booster stage of the giant Proton rocket failed to carry out its correct burn cycle. The Americom satellite, built by Lockheed Martin, is safe but currently stuck in a useless elliptical orbit. The launch took place from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Echostar was planning to use the satellite to expand its HDTV offering, especially its local-into-local strategy.

The various authorities concerned will all conduct investigations, and there is a possibility that the satellite can use its own on-board fuel to reach the target orbit at 35,000 kilometres (21,750 miles) high above the Equator at 61.5 deg West, serving the whole of the continental USA. However, even if this strategy is possible, the end result will be a significantly reduced lifetime for the satellite. The satellite had a planned life expectancy of 15 years – and with good fuel management of better than 18 years – but if its on-board fuel is depleted then that anticipated lifetime might be cut to just a few years.

The craft and its launch costs, were fully insured.

However, this is not just a potential catastrophe for Americom but also very bad news for the Proton launch system and its International Launch Services partner. If, as expected, the problem is with the Breeze-M booster stage then it is just the latest of what now seems like a string of such problems.

An Arabsat craft (4A) was lost in February 2006 when a “foreign particle” in the upper stage was blamed, and then again in September 2007 when a Japanese satellite (JCSAT-11) was lost, again down to a malfunction of the Breeze-M upper stage. The investigation board’s review will take some weeks, and which puts an immediate block on further flights from Baikonur and places further strain on an industry that’s already somewhat backed up from the JCSAT-11 problem, as well as an unrelated Sea Launch explosion that happened in January last year. That problem put the Sea Launch platform out of use for some nine months.

The current position is that ILS/Proton, Ariane and Sea Launch all have full launch manifests for this year – and a prolonged shut-down of the Baikonur site will not only impact ILS but the industry generally. Proton specifically is contracted to launch Inmarsat 4-F3 (originally scheduled for late April), Astra 1M (Spring), EchoStar 13 (June), Nimiq 4 (August) as well as assorted Russian satellites.