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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Blocks Launch at Baikonur

Itar-TassA Proton-K rocket was to have launched the U.S. satellite.
The U.S. State Department stopped a DirecTV 5 satellite from being delivered to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan last week, claiming the area was off-limits to certain high-tech equipment because of the country's proximity to Afghanistan.

The satellite -- manufactured by Space Systems/Loral, or SSL -- was to have been launched by a Russian Proton-K rocket owned by the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center.

The cosmodrome is located at a "dangerous proximity to a zone of potential military action," U.S. officials said. The majority of Russian commercial launches take place from Baikonur -- the lion's share of which are orders placed by U.S. firms.

The DirecTV 5 satellite was scheduled for launch on Oct. 19, but it needed to be shipped to Baikonur 30 days before for preparations.

To move high-tech equipment out of the United States, SSL needed to acquire an export license from the U.S. State Department. The license, however, was postponed indefinitely, a company representative said.

SSL would not comment on the U.S. State Department's decision.

The possible dissolution of the contract could cost SSL $50 million to $60 million. The Khrunichev space center, which owns the Proton rockets, is also in a difficult situation.

Under the terms of the agreement, if the launch is canceled less than two months before the appointed date at the fault of the client, in this case SSL, then 70 percent of the funds are to be returned to the launch operator, the Khrunichev center. However, Khrunichev -- and the Russian space industry -- stands to lose business if it doesn't fulfill the launches.

Launches of SSL satellites take place under the International Launch Service project -- a joint project between the Khrunichev space center and U.S. company Lockheed Martin. One of the project's big selling points was that the launch rockets could replace one another. If the Russian Protons are not used, then the U.S. Atlas launch rocket can take their place.

"The space center could lose the remaining launches at a value of $70 million to $80 million each," said an independent Russian expert for space programs, who asked to remain anonymous. "This is the main source of income for the Khrunichev center, which receives virtually no state support.

"The Proton rockets feed about 100 Russian space enterprises. If Baikonur gets the reputation of an unreliable space base, then this will be a very severe blow to the industry," the expert said.

Denis Pivnyuk, deputy general director of the Khrunichev space center, said the reason for the delayed launch was purely technical. He was unable to say how long it would take for the DirecTV 5 to be launched. Nonetheless, the space station had no plans to file claims against SSL, he said.

"For the time being, we are not getting involved in the situation. But if it goes too far, then the state will take measures," said Sergei Gorbunov, spokesman for the Russian Aviation and Space Agency.

"I don't understand what 'proximity to military activity' means. After all, we're talking about the territory of Kazakhstan," he said. "The space station is well protected both by ourselves and the Defense Ministry. The State Department's impediments could affect the dates for implementing the federal space program."