It is a risky business putting all future satellite communications in one basket ‒ thankfully not many shipowners and managers do. Incidents on one US rocket launch pad and an issue with a key high throughput satellite highlight the problems that constellation operators face. It also demonstrates the risks ship operators face with choosing providers of satellite communications.
When it comes to satellite launching, the risks are obvious. Technical faults, no matter how small, can lead to catastrophe – and each satellite launcher has them from time to time. The latest to be in the news for a rocket explosion was SpaceX. At the beginning of September, SpaceX’s launch vehicle was destroyed when an anomaly created a technical fault.
The Falcon 9 launcher was vertical and in the process of being fuelled for a pre-launch static fire test. This is conducted to demonstrate the health of the vehicle prior to the launch. An anomaly occurred around the upper stage liquid oxygen tank, resulting in the explosion. This not only destroyed a launch vehicle but also damaged SpaceX’s one operating launch pad.
The explosion also delays future satellite launches including Iridium’s Next generation constellation, until SpaceX completes its investigation, gets the all clear from regulators and can patch up the damaged launch pad. It is unknown when the investigation will be completed and future launches allowed, but at least SpaceX can use one of two more launch pads it operates from November. The company is updating another launch pad in Florida and one in California.
Iridium is hoping launches can be recommenced quickly as it was relying on SpaceX to send its Next constellation into orbit to replace ageing satellites. These will be used to deliver the Iridium Certus service programme to maritime users. Executives at Iridium are uncertain about the length of the delay, but they are confident that satellite launching can recommence in the near future. It could be a lengthy spell that forces Iridium to delay commercial introduction of Certus services well into the second half of 2017.
Once satellites are launched the risks continue – as demonstrated by Intelsat’s latest bird. It was hoping to begin beaming high throughput Ku-band spot beams from its second EpicNG satellite by now. The Intelsat 33e satellite was successfully launched on 24 August 2016, but there was a malfunction in a thruster that left it out of operational orbit. Thankfully for Intelsat, the satellite’s solar arrays and antennas have been successfully deployed, which means the satellite can be moved, but it will take longer than expected.
Intelsat said the satellite will be ready for in-orbit testing in December this year and should be ready for service in the first quarter of 2017. The impact on shipping from this will be less as there is Ku-band widebeam back-up, but some high-end maritime users would have been planning on using the spot beams for greater bandwidth applications. All this demonstrates that shipping companies should not rely on just one satellite operator, or one band for communications, especially if that technology is not already in operation. There is real value in having redundancy and using satellite communications suppliers with multiple networks, or even having different suppliers across a fleet of ships.