Another failed launch of a satellite from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 16 May 2015 represents a significant blow to in-flight communications provider Inmarsat’s planned implementation of its Global Xpress (“GX”) high speed communications network. The launch was managed by International Launch Services and operated by a Proton-M rocket, a long serving workhorse in the business of getting heavy satellites into space. This is the latest setback for the GX project which most recently was expected to see global coverage by the end of 2015. The company acknowledged today that the launch timing for the I-5 F3 satellite was uncertain pending the findings of the Failure Review Oversight Board investigating the incident.
A previous failure in May 2014 delayed the GX constellation as engineers worked to resolve anomalies in the Proton-M launch vehicles. That crash saw a 20 week hiatus of operations at Baikonur. The second of three I-5 satellites reached orbit successfully in February 2015; the third was planned to fly at the end of May with the service activated globally in the second half of the year. The latest incident leaves that launch – and delivery of the global service – with uncertain timing.
Perhaps most notable about this failure of a Proton-M is that the rocket was carrying a commercial payload – a Mexican communications satellite – rather than a Russian military or government satellite. Reports from the prior incidents suggested that the non-commercial launches may have been subject to less stringent quality control; this failure calls that discrepancy into question. Inmarsat has contracted to have a fourth I-5 satellite built in case of a failure but further delays in launching the service could see already impatient airline customers considering alternate connectivity providers.
GX hardware just arrived at our flight test operations! Is this the key to global high-speed in-flight Wi-Fi? pic.twitter.com/94KSg1FfI9
— Honeywell Aerospace (@Honeywell_Aero) April 14, 2015
Then again, perhaps the delay is not such a big deal. Hardware for antenna flight testing arrived at the Honeywell facility only 5 weeks ago, suggesting that even if the satellites were flying the airplane hardware was not yet ready to go. And while progress is being made in getting the system flying it is still not quite in the air, much less ready for certification or delivery to airline customers.
— Honeywell Aerospace (@Honeywell_Aero) May 12, 2015
Previously Inmarsat indicated that the GX solution for aviation would not be launched until the constellation is complete, despite the fact that coverage with the first two satellites would serve the majority of the air routes flown by the planned initial customers. Then again, that was before the F2 satellite was launched and before this latest delay of indeterminate duration. Perhaps the new delay will change that tune, though that is a moot point until the antenna is operational and certified.
Passengers – and the airlines carrying them – are chomping at the bit for faster service and global coverage. Inmarsat GX has plenty of promise and more than a few customers signed on to operate with the system. The continued deployment challenges threaten that service, none more so than this latest launch failure. I would not be too surprised to learn that committed GX customers (including Qatar Airways)are now considering alternate providers given the new delays and uncertain delivery timeline.
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