Antonov plane shortage threatens more delays for GEO satellites

COLORADO SPRINGS — A shortage of Ukrainian Antonov aircraft raises the prospect of more delays for satellite projects already stalled by supply chain problems.

Satellite manufacturers make heavy use of large cargo space on Antonovs to transport GEO spacecraft from factory to launch site.

But some Antonovs were destroyed during Russia’s war in Ukraine, noted Mark Quinn, Willis Towers Watson’s head of satellite insurance operations, and those in service are mostly owned by Russian air freight carriers subject to Western sanctions or used to protect the war effort.

“So they’re just not generally available,” Quinn said, “and you have potential launch delays that come into play.”

With few or no alternatives in the air for the commercial market, French Guiana-bound satellites would have to go by sea and US-built commercial GEOs might have to travel by truck to reach their launch pads.

SES told Space news it now plans to use a boat instead of an Antonov to transport its SES-22 C-band satellite from Europe to the US, where it will be launched from Florida on a SpaceX Falcon 9.

Although ocean travel will take weeks longer, SES spokesperson Suzanne Ong said the satellite remains on track to launch before the end of June.

“The duration of the maritime transport can be absorbed by the SES-22 project margin, which will not delay the SES-22 launch schedule and will not affect the timely clearing of the C-band spectrum for the rollout of 5G in the US” said Ong.

The Measat-3d satellite that Airbus built in France will also likely need to travel by boat this year to launch on an Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana.

Viasat confirmed that it currently plans to transport its first ViaSat-3 satellite from California through the United States to Florida, where it will launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy later this year. It’s unclear if the company had previously planned to fly the spacecraft across the country.

Meanwhile, aircraft manufacturers are considering certifying other aircraft with large payloads to fly GEO satellites.

Options include the Airbus Beluga, which flew the Columbus module for the International Space Station from Germany’s Bremen Airport to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in 2006.

“We are closely monitoring the situation with our partners, customers and suppliers regarding the transportation of satellites,” said Airbus Defense and Space spokesman Ralph Heinrich.

“We are continuing our preparations for the Beluga Transport project. It is too early to draw any conclusions from the situation at this point.”

GEO communications satellites require additional safety approvals because they contain pressurized heat pipes and other hazards.

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