Trouble Abounds for European Birds

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London-It's worrying time for Europe's direct-to-home satellite operators. Last year, there were major problems with defective solar panels. Now the maladies involve satellite-thruster systems. It all means further launch delays for at least five much-needed satellites.

Société Européenne des Satellites S.A. (SES/Astra) said the launch of its Astra 2B satellite-already more than one year late due to solar-panel problems-will be delayed until late July. The satellite was supposed to be launched from Kourou, French Guiana, May 23, but the liftoff is on hold while France-based satellite builder Matra Marconi Space conducts further ground tests.

Other satellites known or reportedly affected include two Eutelsat birds, W4 and W1R; Nilesat 102; and Turk Telecom's Eurasiasat 1. The launch of W4, scheduled for early April, won't occur until around May 14.

"Better to find this out now, while the satellite is on the ground," an SES source said.

While that statement is undoubtedly true, it does little to help trim delays that have affected the industry over the past two years. The losses for Matra have amounted to more than $80 million in its last financial year, according to one of its parent companies, Aerospatiale S.A.

SES/Astra has said that it is providing coverage with Astra 1D, which operates as a "phantom" 2B, so it is not under great pressure. However, observers said, channels are now beginning to line up like aircraft on a runway, waiting for suitable transmission slots from the 28.2 degrees east longitude position.

Initial reports suggested that the cause of the problem is the minute leakage of thruster fuel from fuel-supply joints during in-orbit correctional maneuvers.

Eutelsat's W4 will be co-located with its Siberian-European Satellite (Sesat) craft at 36 degrees East. Sesat successfully launched April 18.

Eutelsat director general Giuliano Berretta confirmed that while thruster problems were affecting Eutelsat W4 and W1R, he did not consider them to be major worries. Sesat and W4 were effectively fully booked by clients, he added, indicating the strong demand.

Russian DTH operator Media Most Group's NTV+ digital bouquet urgently needs W4's capacity. And South Africa's MIH Ltd. is speculated to be a W4 client, planning to using the satellite to transmit a pay bouquet of DTH channels into Nigeria, Africa's most populous country.

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