SpaceX At Risk Of Losing Inmarsat 2017 Satellite Launch

Recent problems at Space Exploration Technologies Corp., also known as SpaceX, could see the company lose a valuable launch order from Inmarsat PLC.

SpaceX, which is run by Elon Musk, has suffered a rocky few months. The company saw one of its Falcon 9 rockets explode during refueling in September, raising fears over its safety record, writes Robert Wall for The Wall Street Journal.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk SpaceX
Tesla CEO Elon Musk Photo: Flickr

Inmarsat looking at alternatives to SpaceX for 2017 launch

The concerns could see SpaceX lose a spacecraft launch order from Inmarsat PLC, although the latter has spoken of its trust in SpaceX. The European satellite operator has said that it believes SpaceX will be ready to make further flights by the end of the year.

A Falcon 9 rocket exploded during refueling at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida earlier this year. The explosion meant that a satellite owned by Facebook Inc. was destroyed. It was supposed to provide internet access to the population of sub-Saharan Africa.

According to investigators, the explosion was caused by a fault in the refueling procedure. SpaceX says that rocket flights will be carried out before the new year.

Global Xpress satellite to provide high-speed in-flight WiFi

This Thursday Inmarsat CEO Rupert Peace said that the launch of its fourth satellite would be delayed until next year. The Global Xpress satellite was supposed to launch before the end of 2016.

At the same time, Inmarsat may use a different rocket to carry out another launch scheduled for next year.  “We are actively looking at alternatives,” said Mr. Pearce.

This second satellite is part of Inmarsat’s plan to bring high-speed in-flight WiFi to passengers on airliners in Europe. The first customer for the service will be British Airways, according to an announcement from the airline’s parent company International Consolidated Airlines Group SA, and services will begin next year.

Inmarsat believes that while SpaceX will be able to successfully resume rocket launches, it may have a backlog that would mean delays in launching the Inmarsat satellite. One alternative option is to launch the satellite on the European Ariane 5 rocket, while the Lockheed Martin Corp. Atlas V and the Russian Proton booster are other possibilities.

No loss of faith in SpaceX

At the same time, Pearce said that Inmarsat would stick to its original agreement with SpaceX if there are no earlier launch slots available. SpaceX was not immediately available for comment.

Rockets are scheduled for use far in advance, and it may be difficult for Inmarsat to find a replacement at short notice. Pearce said that the London-based company has options with several launch companies to safeguard against such a situation.

Pearce believes that SpaceX is the most likely candidate to launch the Global Xpress. This is because the satellite is near the front of the queue for launches by the U.S. company.

The launch has been scheduled for early next year. However, a precise date has not been released.

At the same time, Pearce has spoken of his confidence in SpaceX. “The problems they have encountered are readily understood and easily fixable,” he said. “We have not lost faith in Falcon or SpaceX. In fact, SpaceX behaved very well and professionally in dealing with adversity here.”

Due to the launch delay, Inmarsat will record $400 million in capital expenditure this year. This figure was originally forecast to be around $500 million.

Despite the delays, the company has made no changes to its plans for 2017. This Thursday Inmarsat said that Q3 earnings rose 6% and revenue rose 14%.