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29 May 2018

GK Launch Services: Our Soyuz-Fregat is easily competitive with Rocket Lab and other smallsat launchers

GK Launch Services Chief Executive Alexander V. Serkin. Credit: GK Launch Services

PARIS — GK Launch Services as formed in 2017 following a Russian government decision to confer to it all commercial Soyuz missions. The company had an obvious advantage against other new launch companies in that it’s selling the well-proven Soyuz-Fregat rocket.

It also had a disadvantage in the market in its association with the ISC Kosmotras, a pioneer in the small-satellite launch market with the Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr rocket. Dnepr operations collapsed with the Russia-Ukraine conflict, stranding several customers that had already made large launch deposits.

GK Launch Services said on its creation that it was not responsible for Kosmotras business.

GK Launch Services is also handling the aftermath of a 73-satellite Soyuz launch. Several satellites failed almost immediately and there were conflicting reports about whether it was the rocket or the satellites themselves that were at fault.

GK Launch Services CEO Alexander V. Serkin is categoric: The Soyuz rocket was in no way responsible. He says is company, which was not involved in the mission, has learned that full transparency after an anomaly helps dispel rumors. He says GK Launch Services will give a full briefing to insurance underwriters in June on the matter.

I understand there was an arbitration ruling that Spain’s Hisdesat has no claim against Kosmotras for the cancelled Dnepr launch of the Paz radar observation satellite.

That involved ISC Kosmotras and Hisdesat only. GK was not involved.

I know you don’t assume Kosmotras liabilities, but what can you tell customers about this?

What happened was that all the hardware was prepared for the launch — the spacecraft module adapters, the rocket, everything was at the Yasny Cosmodrome, ready for the launch. Then the political situation happened between Russia and Ukraine.

There was a similar situation with Iridium and Kosmotras.

Yes, but with Iridium it’s a bit different. The contract is still in place.

Is this Kosmotras/Dnepr history a problem for you?

Kosmostras and Dnepr really helped the cubesat market to grow up. In the early 2000s, we were talking to the market. We had capacity and we were selling it for nothing, just to launch them. They were mostly universities and small companies, startups. At that time, no other launch provider believed that this market would develop or that cubesats would be able to do something. But we did. Ten years later, it’s become a real part of the business, for Komostras then, and now GK.

Does Glavkosmos or Kosmostras have any function in the commercial market outside of Russia, or just you?

It’s just us. Glavkosmos still exists, same as Kosmotras, but Glavkosmos is now concentrating on other businesses, like satellites. All the commercial launch services have now passed to GK.

You’ve been in business for a year. How are Soyuz sales?

Good. We have a lot of discussions with potential customers. There’s lots of bidding activity and we’ll announce something when it’s signed.

We will be doing part of the mission in December on Roscosmos Soyuz launches of the Russian Canopus and Meteor satellites. On both of those missions we’ll have additional payloads. Both launches are scheduled in December from Vostochny.

Have you already sold the ride-share slots for these missions?

Yes. We are doing this with Glavkosmos, which is authorized to sell capacity on those government missions. We were not. We are supposed to do only commercial launches, and Glavkosmos as a government company was supposed to sell the capacity. But for these missions we’ll be launching together with Roscosmos and Glavkosmos.

When is your first fully commercial mission?

At the end of 2019 or early 2020.

But you can do commercial launches with bigger payloads, too?

Yes, and this is a key advantage of Soyuz on the market. We can do whatever missions required by the market — LEO, MEO and GTO but not as much performance to GTO as is needed. Out of Russian spaceports it’s impossible to do more than two tonnes. Soyuz from Kourou is 3 tonnes.

Isn’t the Europeanized Soyuz from the European spaceport being retired once the Ariane 6 and Vega-C rockets are fully operational in 2023 or so?

It’s a market, and we need to find ways to cooperate. Our vision is that Kourou hopefully will be used, and that we can extend the lifetime of Soyuz there for mostly GTO missions.

It’s hard to see why the Europeans would maintain Soyuz when they have developed their own Ariane 62 and Vega-C rockets to handle the Soyuz-class payloads.

The July 2017 Soyuz launch carried a Russian main payload and 72 smallsats for multiple customers. Some of them failed to operate. GK Launch Services says the rocket was not to blame and that it will make its case to insurance underwriters. Credit: Roscosmos

It’s true that technically in five years there is no place for Soyuz. But what I am trying to say is that hopefully we will find a way to use Soyuz there in Kourou for GTO and GEO. It’s a question for Roscosmos and ArianeGroup but hopefully they will find a way to keep it there.

There are advantages of Soyuz. For instance, on the December mission we will have three orbits for cubesats. Tell me what other rockets can do that to 500 km, 2,000 km and 600 km. Impossible. That is something we do for the cubesats.

Cubesats don’t usually want a 2,000-km orbit.

Cubesat mission range is expanding. Soyuz with the Fregat upper stage is the only rocket in the world that can handle that. You can do different orbits in one mission.

The small-launcher market is about to get crowded. Even if only 10% of these rockets make it to life, there are a lot coming.

My strategy is to conduct more launches every year. The higher your frequency, the more flexible you can be and the more payloads you can take on each of them. Once we do that I believe we are absolutely compatible with [Rocket Lab’s] Electron, with whoever. So I am very optimistic.

Will you use the same small-satellite dispenser used for the July 2017 mission?

On the July mission there were containers from ECM [ECM Space Technologies GmbH] of Germany and ISIS [Innovative Solutions in Space] from the Netherlands. We’ll be using the same on the December mission and in 2020. For the bigger satellites, 10 kg to around 100 kg, we’ll be doing separation systems. We will be using Ruag as well.

Many companies are looking at how to standardize satellite adapters. The idea is to have the same type of separation system for all rockets — Vega, U.S. rockets and for ours. We want to engage Roscosmos as well. Standardization means cheaper, easier and more reliable launches in the end.

Does your business model assume X number of launches per year as a minimum?

Since Soyuz is in serial production for government, we don’t have those problems of launch startups. Even one per year is fine with us for the business model. But we want to get to five or six launches minimum for the first operational years, starting from 2020-2021. This is our target, but even one is fine.

We will have the missions before 2020, but our main business starts in 2020 when we will do the first commercial mission. And from then on, we need to have at least one and maximum of five or six per year.

The July Soyuz launch caused chatter over whether the rocket was to blame for some satellites’ failure. It wasn’t your launch, but what lessons do you draw from it?

The lesson first of all is that we want to be open about all the information we have. Glavkosmos shared its post-launch report with the customers. It wasn’t showed in the media, unfortunately. We should have done that.

So the first lesson is: Show it to the public. Roscosmos has authorized us to do that in June with the insurance market. We are absolutely sure there is no issue on Fregat or the rocket in the June launch and we will show this to the insurers.

Then we — GK — will show the report on preparations for the December payload mission. I already did this with the insurance market in Moscow.

Q: These are people who will speak in English to the underwriters to clarify things?

Yes. We’ll  show all the information on that summer mission and the December payload mission.