Satellite problems cause knock-on delays

Saturday’s launch catastrophe of SES Americom’s AMC-14 craft is already creating difficulties for the world’s major operators.
echostarscharlieergen.jpgSES Americom confirmed early Monday that its AMC-14 satellite is safe, but in a useless orbit and well short of its planned geostationary slot. Martin Halliwell, SES Engineering’s president, said that SES could not comment on the likely problems that caused the launch problem, but “the satellite is healthy and is operating nominally in a stable orbit under the control of [builders] Lockheed Martin. SES and Lockheed Martin engineers are currently exploring various options for bringing AMC-14 into its proper geostationary orbit.”

This is good news for US pay-TV broadcaster EchoStar, the craft’s customer at 61.5deg West, and the speedy implementation of EchoStar’s “local-into-local” high-definition coverage. Just three weeks ago EchoStar’s Charlie Ergen (pictured, left) was bemoaning the satellite launch delays that were interfering with his plans to get 100 HDTV channels on air, and another 100 local HD services up on satellite. “Obviously, almost everyone who wants HD wants their local channels in HD,” Ergen said during Dish Network’s Q4 earnings conference call. “So you’re competitively challenged in markets where you don’t have it.”

“We are confident that the engineering teams at Lockheed Martin and SES will find a way to place AMC-14 into the correct orbit in a manner that our customer’s requirements can be met,” said Ed Horowitz, president/CEO of SES Americom. “We cannot, at this time, speculate on the impact of the orbit raising activities on both the in-service date and the service life of AMC-14.”

AMC-14 is fully covered by launch and in-orbit insurance, including partial loss caused by exactly this sort of problem.

Launch contractors International Launch Services have already formally declared a launch anomaly caused by the second burn of the Breeze M upper stage of the giant Proton rocket.

It is probable that the Lockheed engineers will now lift the craft to its target destination by careful use of the satellite’s on-board thrusters. This will take a little longer, and inevitably shorten the satellite’s on-station life, but it should give at least a couple of year’s service – and allow a replacement craft to be built and launched.

But there are other consequences. Inmarsat said Monday that it isn’t even bothering to send its third Inmarsat-4 craft to the Baikonur launch site – it was slated for an April launch - until the problem is more fully understood. SES has another satellite also now stuck in a lengthening queue, its SES Astra 1M, along with satellites for EchoStar (E-13), Canada’s Nimiq-4 (originally scheduled for launch about August) now not likely to be launched much before year-end.

As we go to press on March 17 there’s another launch scheduled half-way around the world from Baikonur, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, on the Equator, where Sea Launch is readying DirecTV 11 for launch. Lift-off time is slated for 3.49pm EDT (22.49 GMT).