Sea Launch

FIRST UP Satcom | Argos constellation completed • S7 Group wants reusable launcher • GetSAT releases new antenna


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Last night’s Soyuz launch completed not one, but two constellations. The Arianespace launch of Eumetsat’s Metop-C satellite completed the agency’s polar fleet of three satellites and carried a ship-tracking sensor for Collecte Localisation Satellites (CLS), a subsidiary of the French space agency CNES. CLS now has seven Argos payloads in orbit. The company will transfer Argos operations next year to Kineis, a CNES-backed startup preparing a constellation of 20 nanosatellites for Internet of Things connectivity. Kineis’ low-Earth-orbit constellation is expected to start service in 2021. [CLS]

S7 Group wants to retrofit Sea Launch’s Odyssey floating launch base to support a reusable launch vehicle. After completing the purchase of Sea Launch in April, S7 Group now views expendable rockets as uncompetitive. “It is not even funny to compete with reusable and cheap offers entering the market with a non-reusable carrier,” S7 Space CEO Sergei Sopov said in an interview. S7 Space is planning a reusable variant of Russia’s future Soyuz 5 rocket called the Soyuz 7 Sea Launch, or Soyuz 7SL. Sopov said S7 Space has not determined how it would recover the rocket’s first-stage booster. [TASS]

Satellite antenna company GetSAT of Rehovot, Israel, released an electronically steered antenna for L-band communications. The antenna, called Ultra Blade, weighs less than 2.4 kilograms and has no moving parts. GetSAT says the antenna is compatible with any L-band satellite. [GetSAT]


A  team of companies competing to become the third licensed telco in the Philippines hoped its use of the Kacific-1 broadband satellite set to launch in 2019 would provide a leg up over competitors. That team, formed by LCS Group and TierOne Communications, ultimately lost to Mislacom — a different consortium led by Udenna Corp. and China Telecom, though losing teams can appeal their disqualification. LCS-TierOne bought an equity stake in Kacific last month, and argued that having satellite connectivity would enable them to immediately reach all of the country. Luis “Chavit” C. Singson, head of LCS-TierOne, said before the Mislacom victory that LCS-TierOne would keep striving to expand, noting that other countries have four and five telcos. []

Viasat has reduced the size of its planned satellite constellation. The FCC disclosed the change in the company’s system last week, trimming the number of satellites in medium Earth orbit from 24 to 20. The constellation would otherwise stay largely the same as first described to regulators two years ago, according to Viasat. The FCC is scheduled to vote Nov. 15 on proposed constellations from Internet-of-Things startup Kepler Communications and high-speed broadband startup LeoSat, along with expansions to approved constellations from SpaceX and Telesat. [SpaceNews]

The British military’s plans for a next-generation communications satellite system is suffering from “paralysis by analysis.” The U.K. Ministry of Defence (MoD)  plans to hold a meeting this week with satellite executives to discuss its plans for the Skynet-6 series, an estimated $8 billion effort to modernize the satellite constellation that provides telecommunications for the British military. Among the issues the MoD is grappling with is how to mix government satellites with commercial broadband systems, as well as how to introduce competition to the program. MoD awarded a sole-source contract to Airbus last year for Skynet 6A, a contract that has not been formally signed yet but which government officials said won’t be reversed. [SpaceNews]

The head of the company that runs the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska said he plans to retire at the end of March. Alaska Aerospace’s board accepted the retirement request of CEO Craig Campbell, the state-owned company said Nov. 5. Campbell oversaw repairs at the spaceport, formerly called the Kodiak Launch Complex, after the failure of a U.S. Army hypersonic weapon test in 2015. Alaska Aerospace also secured a multilaunch contract with the U.S. Missile Defense Agency and conducted its first commercial launch under his leadership. [Alaska Aerospace]

A startup seeking to develop orbiting propellant depots will test some of its technology on the ISS. Orbit Fab said it will fly an experiment to the station on a Dragon cargo spacecraft next month intended to demonstrate technologies for transferring propellant in weightlessness. Orbit Fab, which raised its first round of funding in August, has proposed launching propellant tanks as soon as next year to support future satellite servicing efforts. [SpaceNews]

Arianespace hired a new sales and business development executive to replace Jacques Breton who is leaving the launch company. Arianespace did not state a reason for Breton’s departure. Emmanuel Franc is joining Arianespace from Swiss company ABB where he worked as senior vice president of sales and marketing for a business unit specialized in high-voltage electrical grids. Arianespace CEO Stéphane Israël said Franc’s experience with “major international contracts” will be beneficial in the launch provider’s sales efforts for the new Ariane 6 and Vega C rockets. “I would like to wish Jacques all the best for the future, and welcome Emmanuel as we focus on new successes in the launch services business,” Israël said. Franc starts his job with Arianespace Jan. 1. [Arianespace]

SpaceNews Senior Staff Writer Jeff Foust contributed to this newsletter.

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S7 closes Sea Launch purchase, future rocket TBD

Sea Launch’s last mission, shown here, was in 2014 with the Eutelsat-3B satellite. Credit: Sea Launch

WASHINGTON — Some 19 months after announcing its intent to buy the assets of Sea Launch, Russian aviation group S7 has closed the purchase.

In a statement released April 17, Sea Launch CEO Sergey Gugkaev said the transaction gives S7 the ocean-faring mobile launch platform Odyssey, the Commander support vessel, as well as certain equipment and intellectual property rights.

“This finally achieves a long and difficult process of title transferring to S7 Group which started in late 2016,” he said.

Sea Launch and S7 faced a lengthy regulatory approval process from U.S. and Russian governments for the asset transfer — one that took 15 months instead of the initially estimated six months. That process included an analysis by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), an interagency committee that assesses whether transactions that could give control of an American business to a foreign entity might harm national security.

S7’s next challenge will be determining what launch vehicle to use to bring Sea Launch back to life.

Sea Launch previously used the Zenit rocket, produced collaboratively by Ukraine and Russia, mostly to launch telecom satellites to geostationary orbits.

Yury Koptev, Roscosmos’ head of the scientific and technical council, said in an April interview on the Russian state corporation’s website that restoring Zenit rocket production would necessitate better Russian-Ukrainian relations. Zenit launches slowed to a near-halt after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

An alternative to the Zenit is Russia’s future Soyuz-5 rocket, which Koptev described as a Russian analog of Zenit. RSC Energia, Sea Launch’s largest shareholder prior to the S7 sale, said it will assist in adapting Soyuz-5 rockets for launches from the Sea Launch complex.

But even if S7 can launch the Soyuz-5 using Sea Launch infrastructure, it will take considerably more time than the company had hoped to revive the launch business. S7, in announcing the purchase of Sea Launch infrastructure at the 2016 International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, hoped to begin launches roughly 18 months after obtaining government approvals. Koptev said the Soyuz-5 won’t be ready until 2022, meaning S7 would have to wait four to five years.

Sea Launch’s Gugkaev said that starting April 19th, Sea Launch SA will be named SL Aerospace SA and will not be part of the new Sea Launch group. In an email to SpaceNews, Gugkaev said SL Aerospace will “remain a part of Energia Group.” He declined to say what Energia will do with SL Aerospace sans-Sea Launch’s primary assets.

Gugkaev, who planned to step down as CEO after the asset sale closed, said he will stay as CEO of SL Aerospace a little longer “to liquidate few companies inside our group, finalize the audit,” and handle other responsibilities. A successor has not yet been selected, he said.

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Sea Launch CEO Sergey Gugkaev to leave company when S7 purchase closes

Sergey Gugkaev, CEO of Sea Launch. Credit: Sea Launch

WASHINGTON — After steering Sea Launch into the hands of a new owner, chief executive Sergey Gugkaev will leave the company to look for a new role elsewhere in the space industry.

Gugkaev has been CEO of Sea Launch since 2012, and oversaw the company’s attempt to reestablish itself after emerging from bankruptcy only two years earlier.

Switzerland-based Sea Launch struggled to regain traction in the commercial market despite launching five times in 14 months between late 2011 and December 2012.

A 2013 failure that destroyed a $400 million Intelsat satellite, and the lack of any government customer ensuring consistent demand for Zenit rockets, forced Sea Launch out of the market the following year. The company  launched only once more, orbiting the Eutelsat-3B telecommunications satellite in May 2014. It hasn’t launched since.

In an interview with SpaceNews, Gugkaev didn’t give a specific reason for his near-term departure, saying only that the timing is right because of Sea Launch’s ownership changes. Russian aviation giant S7 Group announced at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in September 2016 its intent to buy Sea Launch and its assets, including its Odyssey sea-faring launch base and  Sea Launch Commander ship used to transport Zenit rockets and launch personnel.

Zenit Sea Launch OdysseySea Launch used a sea-faring launch base called Odyssey to launch satellites atop Zenit rockets. Credit: Sea Launch

“It’s a good moment with these ownership changes,” he said. “I’ve spent an incredible nearly six years in my position. It has been tough, it has been extremely interesting, it has been an extraordinary time in a unique project with extraordinary people, but I believe right now it’s a good time to move for new challenges after the deal is done.”

S7 Group’s purchase was expected to be complicated given Sea Launch’s ownership makeup — 95 percent by Russia’s RSC Energia, 3.5 percent by Boeing in the United States and 1.5 percent by Aker of Norway — but still took longer than first expected. At IAC, S7 Group CEO Vladislav Filev said S7 Group and Sea Launch estimated it would take six months to obtain the necessary regulatory approvals from the involved nations. Instead it took 15 months.

Gugkaev said it wasn’t until December 2017 that the U.S. State Department approved the transfer of Sea Launch assets and intellectual property to S7 Group. He said Sea Launch also had an unexpectedly long wait with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) an interagency committee that assesses whether transactions that could give control of an American business to a foreign entity might harm national security.

“We’ve been lucky,” he said. “Given also the ongoing Russian-U.S. tensions, we’ve been also prepared for bad news, but finally we got good news, which is great.”

Recent CFIUS difficulties are not unique to Sea Launch. MDA Corp. of Canada refilled paperwork to CFIUS last summer mid-merger with Colorado-based DigitalGlobe to give the group extra time to evaluate the corporate tie-up. Afterwards Howard Lance, CEO of the combined company Maxar Technologies, said CFIUS’s processes were unclear, but that staffing shortages appeared to cause a backlog of work for the interagency group. The State Department, whose staffing shortages have been widely reported, is a member of CFIUS.

This month CFIUS asked U.S. chipmaker Qualcomm, an investor in satellite startup OneWeb, to delay its annual stockholder meeting and board of director elections by at least 30 days so the organization could “fully investigate” a proposal by Singapore-based Broadcom to acquire Qualcomm. The White House on March 12 blocked the acquisition, citing CFIUS’s recommendation.

Gugkaev said Sea Launch’s asset sale to S7 Group faced additional scrutiny because its launch system uses equipment from Boeing that is controlled by U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR, including some U.S.-supplied avionics systems.

“We have also been in compliance with export compliance rules, and during the filing have been examined on these aspects, among others,” Gugkaev said.

Barring additional surprises, Gugkaev said he expects the sale will close in the next month or two, now that the most significant regulatory hurdles are in the past.

“We are now working on transition with S7. They are bringing their team and we are working with them on many aspects, giving them a lot of details on how the Sea Launch business operates,” he said.  

Sea Launch numbers between 40 and 50 people today, compared to over 100 when the company was fully operational, Gugkaev said. He said S7 Group has not yet picked his successor.

Gugkaev said it will be S7 Group’s decision whether to stick with the Russian-Ukrainian Zenit rocket as Sea Launch’s designated launch vehicle, or use a different vehicle, such as the Soyuz-5, an all-Russian rocket now under development.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 strained relations between the two companies, and muddied the future of the Zenit rocket. The land-launched version of Zenit has flown twice since the Ukraine crisis: once in 2015 with the Russian weather satellite Electro-L, and once last year with Angola’s Russian-built telecom satellite Angosat-1. Both launched from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome, and neither was organized by Sea Launch.

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Zenit rocket launches Angola’s long-awaited first satellite

A Zenit rocket lifts off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome Dec. 26, 2017 with the Angosat-1 telecommunications satellite. Credit: Roscosmos

MT LAUREL, New Jersey — A Zenit rocket, flying for the first time in two years, successfully orbited Angola’s debut satellite Angosat-1 on Dec. 26.

The land-launched Zenit lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 2:00 p.m. Eastern on a nearly nine-hour mission to deliver the 1,647-kilogram satellite to geostationary transfer orbit. Russian state corporation Roscosmos confirmed spacecraft separation from the rocket’s Fregat upper stage at 10:54 p.m. Eastern.

The Angosat mission is a first for both Angola, the oil-rich African country that gained its first new president in 38 years, Joao Lourenco, this summer, and S7 Group, the Russian aviation company that purchased Sea Launch in 2016 for around $150 million.

Angosat-1 carries 16 transponders in C-band and six in Ku-band, according to the Gabinete de Gestão do Programa Espacial Nacional (GGPEN), the Angolan National Office for Space Affairs. GGPEN said the satellite has a design life of 15 years, and can cover Angola, Africa and some of Europe from its orbital position at 13 degrees East.

Angosat-1 originated with a 2009 memorandum of understanding between three Russian banks and Angola’s finance and telecommunications ministries, but made little progress until 2011 when Russia’s Export Import Bank, Vnesheconombank, VTB Bank AG and Gazprombank agreed to finance the satellite with a 13-year, $278.5 million loan. RSC Energia began construction of Angosat-1 in 2012.

Angosat-1 was previously planned as a 2016 Sea Launch mission, but switched to a land-launched Zenit after Sea Launch halted operations in 2014 with its ocean-faring platforms.

A lack of business, change of ownership, and frayed bilateral relations between Russia and Ukraine stymied Sea Launch’s Angosat mission, which was supposed to be a dual launch with the Energia-100 communications satellite. That mission would have been Sea Launch’s first dual-launch, pairing together two satellites on the same rocket to split the price between customers. Of the world’s leading commercial launch providers, only Arianespace has been able to normalize dual launches, most of which have been on the European Ariane 5 rocket.

S7 Group’s goal is to revive Sea Launch, presumably with the Russian-Ukrainian Zenit rocket, though the company has entertained using a Russian-led alternative if needed. Sea Launch’s last mission was Eutelsat 3B telecommunications satellite in May 2014, about three months after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. Zenit has launched only once since that invasion, orbiting the Electro-L Russian weather satellite in 2015.

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