- The Washington Times - Monday, March 12, 2001

Witnessing last Thursday's launch of Orbital Sciences Corp.'s B-SAT 2a satellite was like being in the delivery room of a maternity ward.

The satellite's engineers stood by anxiously, awaiting the liftoff in Kourou, French Guiana. Arianespace's rocket held Orbital's satellite and French company Alcatel's Eurobird satellite for Eutelsat. The Orbital engineers had been working on the B-SAT satellite for about two years.

"I'm a nervous wreck. I feel how a husband must feel when his wife has a baby," Marcy Taylor, one of the engineers, said at the event.

The rocket carrying the satellite was launched at about 5:50 p.m., and Orbital's satellite was released half an hour later. It will position itself over Borneo within the next few weeks, at an altitude of more than 22,300 feet. By the end of April, Japanese television stations, such as NHK, will use the satellite to beam its programming into homes.

Last Thursday's launch marked the second time a geostationary satellite created by Orbital was launched. At the time of the launch, the satellite weighs 2,897 pounds, and will remain in orbit for about 10 years.

Geostationary satellite manufacturing is somewhat of a new venture for Orbital, which specializes in creating low earth orbit satellites. Geostationary satellites move at the speed of the earth's rotation, so they hover over one point of the earth. Low earth orbit satellites rapidly move over the earth at altitudes between 500 and 1,250 feet.

Though technology giants such as Lockheed Martin also create geostationary satellites, Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski says they aren't looking to compete. He also says they will not phase out building low-earth orbit satellites for the more popular geostationary satellites.

"It's a real growth area for the company, and we plan to build more after the launch," Mr. Beneski says. "But we won't try to take them on."

Mr. Beneski won't say exactly how much it cost to build the satellite, but did say that one could purchase two of Orbital's satellite launch systems for the price of one created by a larger company at the price of "hundreds of millions of dollars."

But that's not to say Orbital's satellites run cheap.

"We have a lot at stake, and we want to see this launched successfully. There are literally hundreds of millions of dollars of launch services on board this rocket," Mr. Beneski says. "There's all this money on board that gets blasted up into orbit, and in the rocket world, you don't get a second chance."

The company will launch another satellite for the Broadcasting Satellite System Corp. of Japan in June.

Analysts say the news of the satellite launch should bear little influence on the company's stock performance, which has been slacking as of late.

Paul Nisbet, an analyst with JSA Research Inc., in Newport, R.I., says only time will tell if the satellite launch will affect Orbital.

"We aren't going to know for certain for a few weeks if the launch was a success. They'll need to run tests on the satellite while it's in orbit," he says.

Mr. Nesbit rates the company's stock as a buy, but says the company needs to take more of an active role in raising profits.

"They will need something a lot bigger than this to help them out. They could start bidding on larger contracts and start selling off their assets. A good price on one or two of them would benefit the company," Mr. Nesbit says. "Auctioning off their share of Orbcomm could help. Selling one of their holdings, like MacDonald Dettweiler Associates, would give them enough money to pay off their debts."

The company owns 32 percent of Orbcomm, a provider of data and messaging services through low earth orbit satellites, and 54 percent of MDA, a supplier of ground stations for commercial satellite remote sensing. The company is also considering selling off its 56 percent share of Magellan, a maker of global positioning systems and small and medium-class satellites, Mr. Nisbet says.

"All these things pending may affect the stock in the next three weeks," he adds.

Robert Friedman, an analyst with Standard and Poor's in New York, has an even more unfavorable opinion on Orbital: his rating of the company's stock is "sell."

"I haven't been a fan of Orbital in a while," Mr. Friedman says. "The quality of earnings are poor, their satellite and rocket offerings are catering to a dwindling market, and they have a history of restating their financial statements."

Mr. Beneski says the main goal of the launch is to get their name out to potential customers, not to bolster stock ratings with analysts, whom he says know the company is in the process of restructuring.

"The more satellites you build and the more evidence there is that you build good satellites, you become more attractive to customers," he says. "We have communicated to the financial community we're refining and sharpening the focus of our company."

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