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Analysis: Proton poised for strong return to market

International Launch Services (ILS), which markets the venerable Proton launch vehicle (LV), is attempting to come back strong from a rough 2012, but it faces severe challenges, many of its own making.

Last year, two of the 11 Protons launched failed to bring their payloads into orbit, one due to a blockage in the Briz-M upper stage's fuel lines, and the other due to excessively warm propellant. Coming hot on the heels of one loss in 2011 and another in 2010, the losses raised serious questions about Proton's reliability. Because Proton has launched nearly 400 times since its inception, it is a very well-understood rocket, pointing towards failures in quality control.

Quickly following those failures, the firm sued a high-ranking employee for embezzlement, and the company's president, Frank McKenna, left the company.

Despite its problems, ILS appears poised for a strong return. Following exhaustive reviews, a return-to-flight launch put Satmex 8 into orbit.

"2012 was definitely full of challenges for us, no doubt," says Phil Slack, the new president of ILS. "I think [the market] realised those issues would get resolved and [we would] fly successfully, which is exactly what we're doing."

The main competition is French company Arianespace with its Ariane 5 launch vehicle (LV), which boasts an 11-year streak of successful launches. However, it is at the top of the cost pyramid of commercial LVs - save the USA's Delta and Atlas LVs, which are effectively priced out of the market. Its reliability makes its launch slots extremely valuable, and more than one customer has turned to ILS because of scheduling problems with Arianespace.

Competitor Sea Launch's 2012 was near-catastrophic. The most recent launch went wrong immediately off the pad, and as the company emerged from a troubled bankruptcy in only 2010, it faces the threat of being pulled back in once again. A return to flight customer has been confirmed for a 2015 launch, and the company cannot be blamed for moving slowly and carefully.

So if you want to launch a geostationary communications satellite within the next couple of years, you have one option: Proton. ILS has a backlog of 15 commercial launches, which at its current launch rate means around 18 months of bookings, and is making incremental improvements to make itself more competitive. Such advances include a 5m (16ft) fairing to carry larger satellites, and dual-launch capability for lofting two smaller satellites at once.

Of course, there is still the question of quality control, particularly with the Briz-M.

"There's no doubt that some of the failures in recent years that have occurred were quality-related," says Slack. "Improving quality is without a doubt our number one focus area with ILS and [Proton builder] Khrunichev, mission success is what we value most."

Among other things, rigorous checks have been instituted for both parts and the workers manufacturing them, and some workers replaced by machines - while the checks were stringent before, the losses have renewed a laser-like focus on manufacturing quality. An extensive, inch-by-inch technical review of the Briz-M is ongoing, with completion expected in 2014. The Russian aerospace industry has been reorganised, and several outside component manufacturers have been consolidated under Khrunichev, bringing its quality control under direct supervision.

"Our biggest focus area is quality and mission success. You're only as good as your last rocket, and we get the opportunity to go out and prove ourselves 10 to 12 times per year," says Slack.

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