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Sea Launch rocket, Intelsat satellite fall into Pacific

Posted: February 1, 2013

A commercial Zenit 3SL rocket operated by Sea Launch fell into the equatorial Pacific Ocean moments after lifting off from a mobile platform Friday, destroying the Ukrainian booster and an Intelsat communications satellite.

Footage from Sea Launch's live webcast of the failed launch was posted on YouTube.
The 20-story rocket, loaded with more than 900,000 pounds of flammable propellant, blasted off at 0656 GMT (1:56 a.m. EST) from Sea Launch's Odyssey launch platform stationed in the Pacific Ocean about 1,400 miles south of Hawaii.

But something almost immediately went wrong with the launch, and the three-stage rocket appeared to fly off course before its RD-171 main engine switched off about 25 seconds after liftoff, apparently as a safety measure. Sea Launch's rockets carry an on-board health monitor to turn off their engines in the event of a problem, according to the company's website.

"Sea Launch AG announced today that approximately 40 seconds after liftoff of the launch of the Intelsat 27 spacecraft, all telemetry was lost, indicating a loss of mission," the Bern, Switzerland-based company said in a statement released about one hour after the launch.

The company, which prepares for launches at a base in Long Beach, Calif., before steaming for the equator, plans to establish a failure review oversight board to determine the root cause of the mishap.

Russian news agencies, quoting sources in the Russian space industry, reported the rocket launch was terminated after it drifted from the planned flight path.

The rocket was supposed to fly east along the equator after liftoff and deploy the Intelsat 27 communications satellite in orbit 30 minutes later.

But the three-stage launcher, flying uncontrolled and unpowered, hit the water near the Odyssey platform. No injuries or damage to Sea Launch's ground equipment were reported, according to Peter Stier, a Sea Launch spokesperson.

Intelsat of Luxembourg, the world's largest communications satellite operator, has an insurance policy on the satellite worth about $400 million, a company official said.

"We are very disappointed with the outcome of the launch and offer our sincere regrets to our customer, Intelsat, and their spacecraft provider, BSSI," said Kjell Karlsen, president of Sea Launch AG, in a statement. "The cause of the failure is unknown, but we are evaluating it and working closely with Intelsat, BSSI, Energia Logistics Ltd. and our Zenit 3SL suppliers. We will do everything reasonably possible to recover from this unexpected and unfortunate event."

The first and second stages of the Zenit 3SL booster are built by the Yuzhmash design bureau in Ukraine. The rocket's third stage is a Block DM-SL vehicle supplied by Energia, majority owner of Sea Launch.

The Odyssey launch platform and Sea Launch Commander control ship on the day before launch. Credit: Sea Launch
It is the fourth launch failure in 35 flights from Sea Launch's ocean pad, and it's the first launch anomaly since the company reorganized in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings in U.S. federal court in 2009 and 2010.

The bankruptcy was partially precipitated by a dramatic launch failure in January 2007, in which a Zenit 3SL exploded on the launch platform, consuming a Dutch communications satellite in a fireball and damaging the launch pad.

While the launch platform underwent repairs, Sea Launch customers faced lengthy launch delays and moved their payloads to competitors as Sea Launch compiled debt.

Boeing Co., which provides Sea Launch's payload accommodations, relinquished a significant stake in Sea Launch during the bankruptcy. Sea Launch is now 95 percent owned by a Energia Overseas Ltd., a subsidiary of the Russian Energia aerospace giant.

Sea Launch, which was a leader in the launch services market before 2009, has emerged as a bit player in the global launch industry since the bankruptcy, succeeding in four consecutive commercial missions from the Pacific Ocean from 2011 until Friday's launch.

But the launch services firm, which broke into the market in 1999, had no specific satellites assigned to its rockets after Intelsat 27. It has an agreement with AsiaSat of Hong Kong as a backup launch provider for one of two AsiaSat payloads booked to fly on SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket.

Sea Launch operates from a converted North Sea oil rig at the equator to take advantage of the higher speed of Earth's rotation there. The extra boost at the equator reduces the fuel needed for a rocket to reach orbit.

The commercial launch market is dominated by Arianespace, the International Launch Services Proton rocket, and SpaceX, which has signed a steady stream of missions but has not yet accomplished a launch to an orbit used by commercial communications satellites.

The Sea Launch failure continues a string of botched launches involving the Russian space program. Although officials do not know the cause of Friday's anomaly, the first stage is built in Ukraine and its RD-171 engine is manufactured by NPO Energomash in Russia.

International Launch Services, based in Virginia and owned by Russian Proton rocket-builder Khrunichev, grounded its launches after an anomaly placed a Russian communications satellite in the wrong orbit during a December flight of the Proton/Breeze M launcher.

Engineers traced the December failure to an issue with the Proton rocket's Breeze upper stage, which has showed problems on five missions since the beginning of 2011, including a failed deorbit burn following an otherwise successful launch Jan. 15 aboard Russia's Rockot launcher.

The Intelsat 27 satellite is prepared for shipment from its Boeing factory in El Segundo, Calif. Credit: Boeing
The Intelsat 27 communications satellite lost on Sea Launch's doomed mission was designed to cover North America, South America, Europe and the Atlantic Ocean region with its C-band, Ku-band and UHF communications transponders.

"We are clearly disappointed with the outcome of the launch. The cause of the failure is unknown, but we will work closely with our launch and manufacturing partners to determine the necessary next steps," said David McGlade, Intelsat's CEO.

No Intelsat customers will see any service interruptions as a result of the failed launch, according to Intelsat.

Intelsat planned to position the new satellite in geostationary orbit over the equator at 55.5 degrees west longitude, where it was expected to replace the Intelsat 805 satellite launched in 1998.

The 13,702-pound satellite, built by Boeing, featured a beam dedicated to mobile broadband services tailored for shipping and air routes over the North Atlantic. It was the final component in Intelsat's global mobile broadband infrastructure designed to keep travelers connected, according to Dianne VanBeber, vice president of investor relations and communications for Intelsat.

The Italian government had agreed to take control of Intelsat 27's UHF payload and coordinate capacity for other government and military users within the satellite's broad footprint.