Launch Backlog Frustrating Satellite Operators
Commercial satellite operators, which supply most of the bandwidth needed by the military for global communications, are having a difficult time finding rockets to loft their spacecraft after two major launch providers have suffered recent technical problems.
"It certainly has been an issue," Richard Lober, vice president and general manager of defense and intelligence systems at Hughes Network Systems told National Defense on the sidelines of the Satellite 2017 conference in Washington, D.C. "There are more [satellites] going up so that is fueling demand and there have been a few setbacks."
SpaceX has a backlog of launches after its Falcon 9 rocket exploded during a static test fire Sept. 1. The accident at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station destroyed a $200 million communications satellite that Facebook intended to use as a means to bring the internet to underserved regions in Africa. The Falcon 9 is scheduled to return to service this week after a nearly half year hiatus. It now has a backlog of 39 missions at the cape listed on its manifest.
Russia's International Launch Services went on a three-and-a-half month hiatus after it discovered technical problems with its Proton rocket. It only has three commercial launches planned this year, according to industry publication Space News.
That leaves the European Union's Arianespace and the Boeing-Lockheed Martin consortium United Launch Alliance as major players that can launch heavy commercial communications satellites, said one industry insider. Arianespace's manifest is full and ULA is prohibitively expensive, he said.
The backlog may prevent military customers from building out their high bandwidth networks, he said. The Missile Defense Agency has also announced its intention to place a series of space-based kill assessment sensors that will piggyback on an undisclosed commercial fleet of satellites. They are projected to be launched in 2017, according to the MDA website. However, the insider said the lack of launch capacity puts that in doubt. The sensor network, as its name suggests, is designed to confirm whether a kill vehicle has hit its mark and destroyed an incoming ballistic missile.
The launch backlog also promises to delay global communications provider Iridium's next generation fleet of spacecraft. The U.S. military is a major customer for Iridium, and there is speculation that its new satellites will host the MDA's kill assessment sensors, the source said.
"It seems like we are in a congested path right now and it's definitely impacting things, but I think it's starting to clear," Lober said. He pointed to ULA's new Vulcan rocket being developed, which is being touted as being less expensive than its Delta IV and Atlas V, and Blue Origin's New Glenn rocket. Blue Origin announced at the conference March 7 that its new rocket will loft commercial satellites and that it signed up its first customer, Eutelsat. Founded Jess Bezos did not provide a timeline for when he expected New Glenn to begin operations.
Boeing Satellite Systems builds spacecraft, but does not launch them. And it hears from its customers about the difficulties they are facing. Dawn Harris, vice president of global sales and marketing, told reporters March 7 that some customers have waited a year and a half for launches. Some have even grown frustrated enough to break their contract and change launch providers, which is an "expensive proposition" for them, she said.
As for the new launch entrants such as Blue Origin, "We're rooting for them all," Harris said. "They can't get here soon enough."