Too Many Rockets, Not Enough Dependability

Holy shi'ski! The go KABOOMSKI! (Credit: Tsenki TV)
Holy shi’ski! The rocket…it go KABOOMSKI! (Credit: Tsenki TV)

Space News reports that while launch companies say too many providers are creating a buy’s market that has left them with razor-sharp profit margins, satellite operators are complaining about the lack of dependability of the rockets they fly on.

SES, for example, has spread its business around among SpaceX, Arianespace and International Launch Services (ILS), yet it is grappling with delays on each of the launch vehicles.

SpaceX has been dealing with delays on the Falcon 9 version 1.1, which is set to fly its inaugural demonstration flight as early as this weekend. The more powerful version of the launch vehicle is required for geosynchronous satellites like the ones that SES operates.

If the flight is successful, SpaceX will proceed with three additional launches by the end of the year. SES’ satellite, originally scheduled for early 2013, is scheduled to go up in November or December.

SES also has booked a satellite through ILS on Russia’s failure-prone Proton rocket that was supposed to have been launched over the summer. However, that flight got delayed when a Proton launcher crashed shortly after takeoff on July 2.

The re-scheduled launch could take place as early as Sept. 30, if Kazakh officials approve the flight. Workers have spent months cleaning up the toxic soil at the Baikonur Cosmodrome left by the crashed Proton rocket.

Meanwhile, the launch of a third SES satellite aboard Ariane 5 has been delayed until December because the operator of a second spacecraft set to ride along pulled its spacecraft off the flight. The launch vehicle needs two payloads for each flight. Arianespace has since found a replacement.

While satellite fleet operators fume over delays, launch providers are saying the oversupply of rockets is forcing them to charge subsidence level prices. Meanwhile, the gross profit margins for spacecraft operators exceed 80 percent.