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Sea Launch deploys military spacecraft for Italy

Posted: April 20, 2009

An Italian military communications satellite that will be shared with NATO and allied countries went into orbit this morning atop an international rocket launched from a platform floating in the Pacific Ocean.

The Zenit rocket roars to life. Credit: Sea Launch
The Sea Launch Zenit 3SL booster began its unusually long but successful ascent carrying the SICRAL 1B spacecraft at 0816 GMT (4:16 a.m. EDT), roaring into the sky on the commercial rocket's 30th flight spanning the past 10 years.

The two Ukrainian-made lower stages of the rocket performed their firings to propel the Russian Block DM-SL upper stage and SICRAL satellite out of the atmosphere during the first eight-and-a-half minutes of flight.

The upper stage then took over, completing an initial engine burn to reach an elliptical orbit that stretched more than 8,700 miles high. The relatively light weight of the payload coupled with the power offered by the rocket allowed the exceptionally high orbit to be targeted instead of a lower, more typical parking orbit.

The rocket coasted upwards on its trajectory for more than an hour, flying over South America and the Atlantic, before re-igniting for a three-minute firing to accelerate the payload into a geosynchronous transfer orbit.

The 6,700-pound satellite payload separated from the rocket an hour and 49 minutes into flight over Africa. The equatorial orbit achieved the pre-launch plan, with a high point of 22,166 miles and low point of 5,348 miles.

"Another picture-perfect launch," said Kjell Karlsen, president and general manager of Sea Launch. "A great launch indeed."

The Zenit rocket lifts off. Credit: Sea Launch
SICRAL 1B will use an onboard engine in the coming days to reach a circular geostationary orbit 22,300 miles above the equator where it can match Earth's rotation and hover above one spot of the globe. That slot will be 11.8 degrees East longitude.

The satellite will provide the strategic and tactical links for Italy's military, plus law enforcement and civil emergency agencies.

"We are using the SICRAL system to ensure homeland security," said Lt. Gen. Pietro Finocchio, the Italian Ministry of Defence's general director of IT.

SICRAL 1B was built by Thales Alenia Space using the Italsat 3000 spacecraft design. It is equipped with a communications package that includes three frequency bands.

The extreme-high frequency (EHF) transmissions will be dedicated to infrastructure communications in Italy; the ultra-high frequency (UHF) serves mobile communications across the satellite's wide coverage area; and there's five super-high frequency (SHF) transponders to handle voluminous communications over Europe and the Middle East.

Attributes of SICRAL 1B include its nuclear hardening, encryption capabilities and secure communications that guard against interference, said Luigi Pasquali, chairman and CEO of Thales Alenia Space Italia.

An artist's concept of SICRAL 1B. Credit: Telespazio
The first SICRAL spacecraft, launched in 2001, has about three years of life remaining. The new SICRAL 1B is designed to operate for 13 years. The satellites are known by the native acronym formed from the full name of "Italian System for Secure Communications and Alerts."

"We decided to provide ourselves with satellite communications during the second half of the 90's when the Italian army's commitment in the world was increasing and it was necessary to link the area of military operations to the homeland," said R. Adm. Filippo Maria Foffi of the Italian Ministry of Defence.

"In 2001, we launched our SICRAL 1 satellite. It was a great improvement, as it supplied communications services on a constant basis and was no longer random. It also brought improvements to the national territory in the field of connections among army, civil protection and the police force who were the first to use this system."

Under a public-private partnership with the Italian Ministry of Defence, the Telespazio company helped fund the SICRAL 1B program in exchange for rights to some of the satellite's communications capacity. Telespazio will sell the services to NATO, as well as European and U.S. military users.

The SICRAL program, in collaboration with military satellites deployed by France and the United Kingdom, fulfill NATO's needs for space-based communications.