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Eutelsat swaps rockets for satellite launch this summer

Posted: February 19, 2010

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Eutelsat is switching a communications satellite launch this summer from a Chinese booster to the Ariane 5 rocket, citing international trade regulations and consequences from an earthquake in Italy last year.

File photo of a Long March 3B rocket launch. Credit: China Great Wall Industry Corp.
The W3B satellite was scheduled for launch this year on a Long March 3B rocket provided by China Great Wall Industry Corp. In its place, Eutelsat officials said the W3C spacecraft will be put on the Long March manifest between June and September 2011.

W3B will slide into the Ariane 5 rocket's backlog for launch in August or September 2010, according to Michel de Rosen, CEO of Eutelsat.

Eutelsat is eager to launch W3B because its predecessor satellite -- named W2 -- unexpectedly failed in late January. Officials do not expect the aging satellite to resume communications services over Europe, Africa and the Indian Ocean region.

W3B was built to replace W2, but the older satellite's failure forced Eutelsat to gather three different craft to cover for the loss in communications service at the growing 16 degrees east longitude position in geosynchronous orbit.

"It is very important for the future customers of W3B -- we have customers lined up waiting for W3B -- that W3B not be late," de Rosen said.

Eutelsat and satellite-builder Thales Alenia Space decided to swap rockets due to concerns that the spacecraft will not meet strict standards imposed by U.S. export laws called the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR.

ITAR rules prohibit U.S.-built space hardware from launching on Chinese rockets.

Thales was building W3B on a version of its Spacebus 4000C3 platform free of U.S. components, permitting the satellite to launch on Chinese Long March boosters. Several "ITAR-free" Thales payloads have already flown on Long March rockets.

Artist's concept of the W3B satellite. Credit: Eutelsat
But an earthquake that struck a key Thales satellite construction site in Italy last year slowed down assembly of W3B and threatened to delay the launch.

"When we saw that things were getting late, we decided what can we do to save some time," de Rosen said. "The only good idea we found was to simplify the manufacturing process of W3B, and therefore, not to make it ITAR-free anymore."

The potential use of U.S. parts rules out a Chinese launch, so Eutelsat chose to switch to the European Ariane 5 rocket.

"We had, and still have, a contract with a company called Great Wall, which is the company that launches the Long March," de Rosen said. "In that contract, there was a clause that allowed swap our right to use a Long March launcher from our W3B satellite to another one."

"I went to Beijing to inform the chairman of [China Aerospace Corp.] about our decision to exercise the swap option," de Rosen said. "Our Chinese partners understood very clearly why we were doing this, and they were happy to see and hear that we intend to use a Long March launcher next year for W3C."

W3B carries a Ku-band and Ka-band communications suite to broadcast television to Central and Eastern Europe, link video and data networks in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, and provide regional telecommunications and Internet services to sub-Saharan Africa and Indian Ocean islands. W3C will offer similar services operating from the 7 degrees east longitude position.