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‘For Sale’: Satellite, one careful owner…
by Chris Forrester

Norway’s Thor 5 satellite, built by Orbital Science, was launched into orbit February 11. It’s a tangible return to health for International Launch Services and the Proton launch system. It also means Thor 2 will soon be available for re-use, of which I’ll explain more later.

The satellite industry uses a wonderfully understated English word when everything is going well with a launch—“nominal”, they say—indicating all’s well. The launch on February 11th of Thor 5 was “nominal” every inch of the way to its geo-stationary position, initially for testing at 16.5° W and then onto its workstation at 1° W. If all continues to perform “nominally”, then Thor 5 will come into service just after the Easter holiday.

The successful launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan also resulted in more than one or two smiling faces at International Launch Services (ILS), and their partners at the Khrunichev Space Centre. Most notably, there was relief that the Breeze M upper stage, manufactured by Khimmash, and the component responsible for the JCSAT-11 catastrophe last September, performed ‘nominally’. That particular failure put a halt to Proton launches, although there have since been three successful launches of the Proton+Breeze M unit, including that of a Sirius satellite for SES Sirius. The firing on February 11th was further confirmation that all now seems well for ILS and future launches—and an SES Americom AMC-14 launch on about March 14th.

Indeed, ILS is intending to expand out of Pad 39 at Baikonur to accommodate the heavy launch backlog, which includes contracted launches for Arabsat, Ciel, and CMB-Star for Echostar. This in addition to another unspecified Echostar contract, a Eutelsat ‘W’ craft, Inmarsat 4F3, Nimiq 5 for Telsat, MSV-1 for Mobile Satellite Ventures as well as an option for MSV-2, Protostar 2, Yahsat, and a 5-launch contract for SES. There are also two launches “for unnamed customers”, adds ILS. Increasing the frequency of commercial launches from the current half-dozen a year to nearer one a month is now the immediate revenue-generation goal. In fact, there have been four Proton launches in two months, a record for the vehicle indicating that an aggressive launch rate is certainly possible.

There were also huge smiles at Telenor Satellite Broadcasting, the largest of which were to be noted on CEO Cato Halsaa and his team. He said the successful launch of his Orbital Sciences-built satellite justifiably makes a huge difference for Telenor.

“The new satellite, and the capacity it carries, means we can now press ahead with expansion. We can now fulfill our plans, allowing customers to add more HDTV services as well as new channels for the Nordic region. Importantly, we can also go for international expansion. We have sufficient capacity to look for new DTH platforms in these new markets. We also have spot-bean capacity looking at greater Europe. As far as the Middle East is concerned, we can now free up some old capacity [Thor 2] and use this for customers in that region. The capacity is for more than just backhaul, and allows for Internet backbone and data, and DVB-RCS systems, a business that I’m happy to say is growing well.”

Three years or so ago, Telenor Satellite Broadcasting was effectively on the sales forecourt.. Stig Eide Sivertsen, then EVP and head of Telenor Broadcast, and his colleagues fought hard to retain the division as part of Telenor Broadcast Holdings, when many of Telenor’s main board wanted to dispose of the asset. Sivertsen was also at the launch, but it was his swansong weekend at the company. He resigned back on September 11th, after 10 years with Telenor, and was wrapping up his last days as a member of the Telenor team. He has not, as yet, revealed what his next plans are.

As far as the market is concerned, Halsaa and his team are now seeking “new uses” outside the 1° W position for Thor 2 (which Thor 5 replaces). “We have no firm position in mind, but we are talking to prospective customers about the craft, and how it might fit in with their own frequency expansion needs. Our engineers tell us that Thor 2 has full manoueverability until the end of this year, but it could have a DTH mission even in inclined orbit for a year from now, after which it could be used as an inclined orbit craft for about 5 further years,” adds Halsaa.

However, Telenor’s market position over Scandinavia (and its expansion further a field) is not alone or free from intense competition. On its Scandinavian doorstep it has SES Sirius (now 90 percent owned by the giant SES operation), and tending to prove the eat-or-be-eaten drive towards further and greater consolidation amongst satellite operators.

Halsaa says there’s a third way for Telenor: “There are smaller operators that are doing well. What we have seen is that launch rates and insurance costs are not a disadvantage to us as a smaller operator. Suppliers, naturally enough, like to see a lot of customers and potential customers out there. So, we are happy at the equal rates that we can achieve alongside the big players, we believe. Secondly, our business is in a strong position and so do not see any threats in that direction. This does not mean we are not looking for expansion, we are. Thor 5 gives us the first step to seek expansion geographically, and later next year with Thor 6. We’d like to think this will pay dividends, and then perhaps we can also be looking for partners. As is well known, the 1 deg West slot is not ours alone. Intelsat also operates frequencies alongside us. The slot is perfect for the whole of Europe, and someway beyond, and is an excellent spot from which to expand.”

The Joys of Baikonur

“On no account bring a GPS unit to Baikonur. It will be confiscated.” That was the firmly stressed message from all of the organizers prior to a visit to Kazakhstan to watch the launch of Thor 5. This worried me. First, because my sexy Nokia n95 mobile phone has added facilities such as a MP3 music player and a 3G television device, radio (and phone). But second, and more relevantly, I thought in this day and age (and probably for decades past), every espionage agency in the western world probably has all of Baikonur’s missile silos carefully locked into the rival ICBM’s missile guidance software.

True enough, I brought up Google Earth on my PC, and there, in the west of the country, and just east of the drying out Aral Sea, is a perfectly inscribed circle that represents a not-so-tiny chunk of Russia—and the Cosmodrome—inside Kazakhstan. The site is about 2100 km (1300 miles) from Moscow (and located at 45.37° N, 63.2° E, in case you are interested) and is truly massive, stretching about 160 km east to west (about 100m) and 88 km north to south (55m). Certainly, the Thor 5 launch party spent hour upon hour in buses travelling back and forth across the bleak terrain. You can do the same by simply zooming in on Google Earth and visiting the launch pads as well as the tiny, on-site living quarters of Yuri Gagarin. Just think of the challenges in getting a news story out of the town on a single 56 kb/s dial up line shared by everyone else in the hotel!

Baikonur’s place in history is rightfully assured due to the brilliant success of successfully orbiting Yuri Gagarin on Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961, and the subsequent Voskhod, Salyut, Almaz and Mir space programs.

But, as mentioned, Baikonur is a horribly bleak spot, made a little prettier by a snowfall just prior to our visit. Baikonur City’s population is about 70,000 people, totally devoted to the nearby Cosmodrome and keeping themselves alive in the –25c winter. ILS took us to the city’s beauty spots: the wall commemorating the four names the city has been known under since 1955 (including Leninsk, Tyuratam and Baikonur, since 1995).

The launch of Thor 5 was delayed 24-hours by a glitch, which taxed the ILS for about a nanosecond. Their dilemma was simple—if you have exhausted all the region’s available beauty spots (and don’t forget the –25c temperature) somewhat forbad a leisurely stroll along the banks of the nearby river. What do you do on Day 2? Pizzas were conjured up, a pub quiz organized, and great fun was had by all. And then, to crown it all, a ‘nominal’ launch—such an inadequate word.

London-based Chris Forrester is a well-known entertainment and broadcasting journalist. He reports on all aspects of the TV industry with special emphasis on content, the business of film, television and emerging technologies. This includes interactive multi-media and the growing importance of web-streamed and digitized content over all delivery platforms including cable, satellite and digital terrestrial TV as well as cellular and 3G mobile. Chris has been investigating, researching and reporting on the so-called ‘broadband explosion’ for 25 years.