A SpaceX Falcon 9 launches Inmarsat-6 F2 Feb. 17 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida. Credit: Inmarsat / SpaceX
By Jason Rainbow,
Published by SpaceNews, 6 October 2023
An issue with the Inmarsat-6 (I6) F6 2 satellite could send the space insurance market deep into the red, pushing up rates that were already rising following news of ViaSat-3’s troubles just six weeks earlier.
While engineers are still working on salvaging at least some of the broadband capacity on ViaSat-3, insurers are bracing for a $420 million total loss. That would be nearly 80% of the $550 million premium income the market at one point expected for 2023, according to insurers who did not want to be named.
Meanwhile, insurers say a total I-6 F6 2 loss would set the market back $350 million.
Not much has been disclosed about the anomalies ViaSat-3 and I-6 F6 2 experienced after successfully launching toward geostationary orbit in April and February, respectively.
Boeing-built ViaSat-3 suffered an antenna deployment failure, and I-6 F6 2, built by Airbus Defense and Space, has an issue with its power subsystem. California-based Viasat was to operate both satellites for its multi-band connectivity constellation.
Viasat said Aug. 24 it was assessing whether I-6 F6 2 could still perform its primary mission to provide mobile connectivity services across maritime, aviation, and government markets.
The size of these two potential insurance claims easily eclipses other insured satellite failures so far this year.
Arcturus, the first satellite from startup Astranis that shared a Falcon Heavy rocket with ViaSat-3, suffered a separate issue with its solar arrays, likely resulting in a $40 million claim.
And the payout for Azersky/Spot-7, Azerbaijan’s first Earth observation satellite that failed nine years after launching into orbit, is only around $25 million.
That means the space insurance market is potentially looking at $835 million in total claims for 2023, with four months remaining.
The anticipated $550 million in premium income for 2023 also includes coverage for a second ViaSat-3 satellite that was secured ahead of its launch, which was planned for this year but could be delayed to allow for any design changes.
News in July of a potentially mammoth insurance claim for ViaSat-3 was already enough for some insurers to increase rates.
Despite having climbed following a string of launch failures around four years ago, rates are still at historically low levels — usually in low single digits as a percent of payload value, which some insurers see as unsustainable.
Richard Parker, co-head of space at underwriter Canopius, said his firm raised prices across the board after the Viasat-3 announcement.
“It’s not huge, but it’s meaningful,” Parker told SpaceNews shortly before news of I-6 F6 2’s issues hit the market, “and we’ve been carrying on. We’ve been writing business on that basis with higher rates.”
Space insurance is typically syndicated to a market with only around 30 underwriters specializing in the industry, so others were likely also raising prices.
“If I put my price up and no one else did, I just wouldn’t get any business,” Parker said.
Parker declined to specify sums insured but said news of I-6 F6 2’s issues “came like an earthquake,” adding that there have not been two potentially massive insured losses so close together for at least 20 years.
Higher prices might not be enough to keep some space underwriters in the game.
Operators “are not going to pay 20% insurance rates,” Parker said, “so I don’t know where we’re going at this point.”
According to data from underwriter AXA XL, the average net rate for launch +1 coverage has fallen from more than 20% roughly two decades ago to around 1.6% for 2022. The average annual net in-orbit rate has declined from just under 15% to 1% during this time.
Less competition among a shorter pool of underwriters would also drive rates higher while potentially lacking the capacity to cover sizable risks.
There are two main types of satellite insurance: Coverage for the launch plus one year of a satellite’s operations and in-orbit coverage that usually starts on the first anniversary of that launch and is renewed annually.
“Launch plus one” coverage is usually taken out two years or so before lift-off. Operators are currently holding off tapping the market for this coverage in the hope price volatility will settle down.
AST SpaceMobile chief strategy officer Scott Wisniewski said he had no concerns about accessing the market for future launches in an Aug. 18 email, even as its first five commercial satellites are due to fly in the first quarter of 2024.
However, on-orbit coverage can’t wait, and it’s here that operators face higher-than-expected rates in the near term as their policies come up for renewal.
While any savvy operator would leave room in their cost models to cater to price volatility, even small cost bumps are unwelcome during challenging economic conditions. Lenders also usually require operators to insure their spacecraft.
See: Original Article
This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.