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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.

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.

Company Country of origin Ownership share Contribution
Boeing Commercial Space United States 40% System integration, payload enclosures (nose-cone that protects the satellite during launch)
Energia Russia 25% Block DM-SL rocket stage (it is used in the Zenit 3SL rocket as its 3rd stage)
Aker Kværner Norway 20% Launch platform (Ocean Odyssey) and command ship (Sea Launch Commander)
SDO Yuzhnoye / PO Yuzhmash Ukraine 15% Two-stage Zenit rocket (used as Zenit 3SL's stages 1 and 2)

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).

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.

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.


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, , 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.

Date Payload Mass Comments Number
March 27, 1999 DemoSat 4.5 t success 1
October 9, 1999 DIRECTV 1-R 3.5 t success 2
March 12, 2000 ICO F-1 2.7 t failure 3
July 28, 2000 PAS-9 3.7 t success 4
October 20, 2000 Thuraya-1 5.1 t success 5
March 18, 2001 XM-2 ROCK 4.7 t success 6
May 8, 2001 XM-1 ROLL 4.7 t success 7
June 15, 2002 Galaxy IIIC 4.9 t success 8
June 10, 2003 Thuraya-2 5.2 t success 9
August 7, 2003 EchoStar IX/Telstar 13 4.7 t success 10
September 30, 2003 Galaxy XIII/Horizons-1 4.1 t success 11
January 10, 2004 Telstar 14/Estrela do Sul 1 4.7 t success 12
May 4, 2004 DIRECTV-7S 5.5 t success 13
June 28, 2004 Telstar-18 4.8 t launch anomaly 14
March 1, 2005 XM-3 4.7 t success 15
April 26, 2005 SPACEWAY-1 6.0 t success 16
June 23, 2005 Intelsat IA-8 5.5 t success 17
November 8 2005 Inmarsat 4-F2 6.0 t success 18
February 15, 2006 EchoStar X 4.3 t success 19
April 12, 2006 JCSAT-9 4.4 t success 20
June 18, 2006 Galaxy 16 5.1 t success 21
August 22, 2006 Koreasat 5 4.9 t success 22
October 30, 2006 XM-4 4.7 t success 23
January 30, 2007 NSS-8 5.9 t failure 24
January 15, 2008 Thuraya-3 5.2 t success 25
March 19, 2008 DirecTV-11 5.9 t success 26
May 21, 2008 Galaxy 18 4.6 t success 27
July 16, 2008 EchoStar XI 5.5 t success 28
September 24, 2008 Galaxy 19 4,690 kg success 29

NSS-8 launch failure

On January 30, 2007, the Sea Launch Zenit-3SL rocket carrying NSS-8 and 500 tons of fuel exploded on launch. Available imagery shows a fireball much larger than the launch platform at sea level. . 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.

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.

Repairs of the launch platform were completed in September, 2007. 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.

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). 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. 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.

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.

The project was criticized in 1997 by International Transport Workers' Federation (ITWF) for registering its sea vessels in Liberia. 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.


See also

Sea Launched Rockets

External links

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