A Proton M/Briz M vehicle was launched at 1017 GMT, on 9 October from Baikonur Cosmodrome near Tyuratam in Kazakhstan. The vehicle was carrying two satellite payloads into a super-synchronous transfer orbit on their way to the geostationary arc. While super-synchronous transfer orbits have the onus of having to have their apogee reduced to the standard 36,000 km apogee of geostationary orbits during “circularisation”, the very high apogee of super-synchronous transfer orbits – in this case 65,000 km –  are nevertheless much better in terms of overall fuel efficiency as they are a better place to reduce the orbital inclination using the spacecraft’s own propulsion system.

The 2,864 kg Eutelsat 5 West B spacecraft is a direct broadcasting communications satellite owned by the commercial satellite operator Eutelsat. Of more news interest however is the 2,326 kg MEV-1 payload being launched for Space Logistics LLC, a Northrop Grumman subsidiary. This is the first of a new class of servicing spacecraft in orbit. The MEV 1 (more formally known as the Mission Extension Vehicle 1) is designed to dock with defunct spacecraft via a grapple of its apogee kick motor nozzle to provide their attitude and orbit control functions and thus extend its mission. In this case the MEV-1 will dock with the Intelsat 901 communications satellite to extend its mission by five years.

The Briz M (Breeze M) upper stage carrying the two spacecraft separated from the third stage and, having carried out its five burn sequence, deployed the two spacecraft successfully into their super-synchronous transfer orbit.

Update on 10 October 2019: While he should be basking in the success of this commercial launch, Kirk Pysher, President of ILS (International Launch Services) was not around long to do so. His resignation – voluntary or involuntary – was announced by ILS majority shareholders Khurnichev and Roscosmos the day after the launch. John Palme – ILS Chief Operating Officer has been named as Pysher’s temporary replacement. During his tenure, Pysher has had a lot to put up with.

For a time things looked optimistic. Proton strung together a series of good launches while a new double decking concept allowing more than one major satellite to be launched at a time – with the most recent launch as an example – gave the Proton M a new lease of life. Meanwhile the US-based ILS firm, along with Proton’s manufacturer, and ILS’s majority shareholder, Khrunichev came up with an ingenious plan to cut one of the stages of the Proton M to make it a much more economic launch vehicle. This would have been enough to allow the Proton to get close to the Falcon 9 and Ariane 6 on price. However, this plan was stymied when the Kremlin directed that the limited development funds they had should be directed to the Angara 1.2 and 5 series and to new versions of Soyuz. Since the Soyuz marketeer Glavkosmos has increased its power within ILS via three board members – a de facto take over of the marketing of Proton.

Proton M is successfully launched on 9 October 2019. Courtesy: ILS