Sea Launch

Sea Launch

Sea Launch is a spacecraft launch service that uses a mobile sea platform for equatorial launches of commercial payloads on specialized Zenit 3SL rockets. As of July 2008 it had assembled and launched 28 rockets with two failures and one partial failure.

The sea-based launch system means the rockets can be fired from the optimum position on Earth's surface, considerably increasing payload capacity and reducing launch costs compared to land-based systems.

The Sea Launch consortium of four companies from the United States, Russia, Ukraine and Norway, was established in 1995 and their first rocket was launched in March 1999. It is managed by Boeing with participation from the other shareholders. [cite news| |title= Sea Launch System - Commercial heavy-lift launch services, USA |year=2006|url= ] [cite news| |title= Zenit 3SL |date=1997–2000|url= ]

All commercial payloads have been communications satellites intended for geostationary transfer orbit with such customers as EchoStar, DirecTV, XM Satellite Radio, and PanAmSat.

The launcher and its payload are assembled on a purpose-built ship "Sea Launch Commander" in Long Beach, California. It is then positioned on top of the self-propelled platform "Ocean Odyssey" and moved to the equatorial Pacific Ocean for launch, with the "Sea Launch Commander" serving as command center.

Although Sea Launch is currently the world's only ocean-based space launch company, the idea is not unique: in 1964–1988 the University of Rome La Sapienza in Italy and NASA launched spacecraft from the San Marco platform off the coast of Kenya and Shtil' rockets have been used to orbit payloads launched from submarines.

Ownership and business

Four companies from four countries share ownership of Cayman Islands-registered Sea Launch. [cite news|publisher=Energia |title= The Sea Launch Partnership |date=|url=]

The project was helped by Hughes Space and Communications, which in 1995 signed the first contract for 10 launches and 10 options, valued at $1bn, and Space Systems/Loral, which then signed a five-launch contract.

Total cost of the project has been reported at $583m in 1996. Chase Manhattan arranged about $400m in loans in 1996. Loans were later guaranteed against political instability in Russia and Ukraine through 2012 by the World Bank (up to $175m, of these up to $100m in Russia and up to $75m in Ukraine) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (up to $65m). [cite news| |title= Zenit 3SL |date=1997–2000|url= ]

Sea Launch has a reciprocal agreement with Arianespace and MHI, providing assurance in case either company's system is not able to launch a payload for reasons of reliability, capacity, backlog, or otherwise. This was used for the first time in 2004 when Arianespace’s Ariane 5 had to reschedule a group of launches for reliability reasons.

The Sea Launch consortium claims that their launch-related operating costs are lower than a land-based equivalent due in part to reduced staff requirements. The platform and command ship have 310 crew members. [cite news|publisher=Popular Mechanics |title= Sea Launch |date=August 1, 1999 |url=]

On March 17, 2006 it was announced that Jim Maser, the President and General Manager of Sea Launch, would leave the company to join SpaceX as President and Chief Operating Officer. [cite news| |title= Jim Maser to Join SpaceX as President and Chief Operating Officer |date=March 17, 2006 |url=]


The first demonstration satellite was launched on March 27, 1999 and the first commercial satellite on October 9, 1999. Sea Launch has launched 29 rockets with 26 successes and 1 partial success as of September 2008. The first failure, of a Hughes-built communications satellite owned by ICO Global Communications, occurred on the second commercial launch on March 12, 2000 and was blamed on a software error that failed to close a valve in the second stage of the rocket.A second rocket failed to launch on 30 January 2007, when Zenit-3SL exploded on the launch pad with the Boeing NSS-8 satellite on board, seconds after engine ignition.

All Sea Launch missions to date have used the custom-designed three-stage Zenit-3SL launch vehicle, capable of placing up to six tonnes of payload in geosynchronous orbit. Sea Launch rocket components are manufactured by SDO Yuzhnoye / PO Yuzhmash in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine (Zenit rocket for the first and second stages); by Energia in Moscow, Russia (Block DM-SL for third stage); and by Boeing in Seattle, United States (payload fairing and interstage structure).

Sea Launch rockets are assembled in Long Beach, California. The typical assembly is done onboard the Assembly and Command Ship (the payload is first tested, fueled and encapsulated in the Payload Processing Facility). The rocket is then transferred to a horizontal hangar on the self-propelled launch platform.

Following rocket tests, both ships then sail about 4,828 km to the equator at 154° West Longitude, coord|0|N|154|W|, in international waters about 370 km from Kiritimati, Kiribati. The platform travels the distance in about 11 days, the command ship in about eight days.

With the platform ballasted to its launch depth of 22 m, the hangar is opened, the rocket is automatically moved to a vertical position, and the launch platform crew evacuates to the command ship which moves about five kilometers away. Then, with the launch platform unmanned, the rocket is fueled and launched.

NSS-8 launch failure

On January 30, 2007, the Sea Launch Zenit-3SL rocket carrying NSS-8 and 500 tons of fuel [ [ Satellite-Strapped Rocket Explodes on Platform (Video)] ] exploded on launch. [ [ Sea Launch Experiences Anomaly during NSS-8 Launch] , Sea Launch press release, accessed January 30, 2007] Available imagery shows a fireball much larger than the launch platform at sea level. [ [ Sea Launch Rocket Fails to Launch New Communications Satellite] , staff, accessed January 30, 2007] . Video of the rocket exploding is available at [ YouTube] .

Since the launch pad platform is vacated by all engineers during the automated launch process, there were no injuries. On February 1, 2007 Sea Launch released a statement detailing its status. [cite web | url = | title = Sea Launch Assesses Status and Plans for Next Steps | publisher = Sea Launch]

On February 3, 2007, photographs of the damage were posted on internet forums. [ [] ] The launch platform damage is mostly superficial, though blast deflectors underneath the launch platform were knocked loose and were lost when they fell into the sea.

In March 2007, shortly after the NSS-8 launch failure, Hughes Network Systems switched the launch of SPACEWAY-3 from a Sea Launch Zenit 3SL to an Ariane 5. [cite web | url = | title = Hughes Signs Contract with Arianespace to Launch SPACEWAY 3 | date = March 1, 2007 | publisher = Hughes] [cite web | url = | title = Hughes Network Systems Awards SPACEWAY 3 Launch Contract to Sea Launch Company | date = December 8, 2005 | publisher = Hughes]

Repairs of the launch platform were completed in September, 2007. [cite web | url = | title = Sea Launch Mission page - Mission Recovery | publisher = Sea Launch] The Sea Launch platform underwent repairs in Canada, docked near CFB Esquimalt, just west of Victoria, British Columbia, and departed on July 31, 2007. Both vessels returned to their home port in Long Beach, California. [cite web | url = | title = New Gas Deflector Arrives at Sea Launch Home Port | publisher = Sea Launch]

Concerns and investigations

During project development in 1998 Boeing was fined $10m by United States Department of State for technical violations of Arms Export Control Act in handling of missile technology while dealing with its foreign Sea Launch partners, the largest civil penalty of its kind (although it could have been as much as 102 million USD). [cite news|publisher=The Christian Science Monitor via the Federation of American Scientists |title= High-seas launch worries islanders |date=September 22, 1999|url=] The Sea Launch project was suspended for two months during the investigation.

The Department of State found that between January 1994 and January 1998 Boeing illegally exported "defense articles" and "defense services", although no national security breaches were determined. [cite news|publisher=The Seattle Times |title= Boeing Dodges Stiffer Fine, Resumes Sea Launch Project -- No National Security Breach In Satellite-Launching Program; Criminal Charges Aren't Likely |date=October 1, 1998 |url= ] The violations were uncovered by Boeing's internal investigation.

At about the same time United States Customs Service attempted to block Sea Launch from bringing Zenit 3SL rockets (classified as missiles) into California for assembly without a munitions import licence. The matter was settled in the company's favour. [cite news|publisher=International Studies Association |title=High Seas Satellite Launches: Paragon of Post Cold War Cooperation or Unregulated Danger? |date=August 10, 2001 |url=]

Also in 1998, 16 member states of the South Pacific Forum issued a communiqué asking the United States to suspend the project indefinitely until and unless their environmental concerns are remedied. It was mostly criticized by the island nation of Kiribati. [cite news|publisher=The Christian Science Monitor via the Federation of American Scientists |title= High-seas launch worries islanders |date=September 22, 1999|url=]

The project was criticized in 1997 by International Transport Workers' Federation (ITWF) for registering its sea vessels in Liberia. [cite news|publisher=The Christian Science Monitor via the Federation of American Scientists |title= High-seas launch worries islanders |date=September 22, 1999|url=] In May 1999 Sea Launch reached an agreement with the ITWF, which allows crew members to use ITWF inspectors.

Land launch

Using existing Zenit infrastructure at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the “Land Launch” system is based on a modified version of the Sea Launch vehicle, the three-stage Zenit 3SL rocket. Land Launch's Zenit 3SLB vehicle addresses the launch needs of commercial satellites weighing up to three-and-a-half metric tonnes. The two-stage Zenit-2SLB is also available for lifting payloads up to thirteen metric tonnes to inclined low Earth orbits.

The first launch was on 28 April 2008, when a Zenit-3SLB launched Spacecom Ltd's AMOS-3 spacecraft from LC-45/1 at Baikonur.

Advantages of equatorial ocean-platform based launches

There are several advantages of an ocean-based, equatorial launch platform over a conventional land-based one:

*The rotational speed of the Earth is greatest at the equator, providing a minor extra launch "boost".
*The need for a "plane change" to the zero degree inclination of geostationary orbit is eliminated, providing a major extra launch "boost". The same rocket launched from Cape Canaveral at 28.5 degrees north latitude would lift 15%–20% less mass to geostationary orbit.
*An ocean launch reduces risks related to launching over populated areas, providing better safety to third parties.
*Absence of range conflicts with other launch systems and a near total absence of ship or overhead air traffic that would constrain launch.
*Any orbital inclination could be reached, thus (for example) combining in one launch site the attainable inclinations of both Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg.


ee also

* Expendable launch system

[ Sea Launched Rockets]

External links

* [ "Odyssey" platform webcam]
* [ Official Sea Launch web site]
* [ Energia’s Sea Launch web page]
* [ NSS-8 Launch Failure movie]
* [ Unofficial Sea Launch Russian web site]

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