Sea Launch

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Image:SeaLaunch-Commander.jpg Image:SeaLaunch-Odyssey.jpg Sea Launch is a spacecraft launch service, which uses mobile sea platform for equatorial launches of commercial payloads on top of specialized Zenit-3SL rockets. As of January 2006 it had assembled and launched 18 rockets with one failure and one partial failure.

The Sea Launch consortium, which unites four companies from the United States, Russia, Ukraine and Norway, was established in 1995, and their first rocket was launched in 1999. It is managed by Boeing, with participation from other shareholders. [1] [2]

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

The space vehicle and its payload are assembled on a purpose-built ship in Long Beach, California. It is then positioned on top of the self-propelled platform and moved to the equatorial Pacific Ocean for launch.

Although Sea Launch is currently the world's only ocean-based space launch company, the idea is not unique: in 1964–1988 Italy and the United States were launching spacecraft from the equatorial San Marco platform off the coast of Kenya.


Ownership and business

Four companies from four countries contribute to Cayman Islands–registered Sea Launch, and share in its ownership [3]:

company 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 upper stage (Zenit-3SL stage 3)
Aker Kværner (Norway) 20% launch platform (Ocean Odyssey) and command ship (Sea Launch Commander)
SDO Yuzhnoye/PO Yuzhmash (Ukraine) 15% two stage Zenit rocket (Zenit-3SL stages 1 and 2)

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

Total cost of the project has been reported at 583 million U.S. dollars in 1996. Chase Manhattan arranged about 400 million dollars in loans in 1996. Loans were later guaranteed against political instability in Russia and Ukraine through 2012 by World Bank (up to 175 million, of these up to 100 million in Russia and up to 75 million in Ukraine) and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (up to 65 million). [4]

Sea Launch has a reciprocal agreement with Arianespace, providing assurance in case either company's system is not able to launch a payload, whether 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 would be, due in part to reduced staff requirements. There are 310 crew members working on the platform and the command ship. [5]

On March 17, 2006 it was announced that Jim Maser, the President and General Manager of Sea Launch, would be leaving the company to join SpaceX as President and Chief Operating Officer. [6]


The first demonstration satellite was launched in March 1999, and the first commercial satellite in October 1999. In total, Sea Launch has launched 18 rockets, with 16 successes and 1 partial success as of January 2006. The one failure, of a Hughes-built communications satellite owned by ICO Global Communications, occurred on the second commercial launch in March 2000 and was blamed on a software error that failed to close a valve in the second stage of the rocket.

All Sea Launch launches up to date has used the three-stage Zenit 3SL launch vehicle (custom-designed for the project), which is capable of moving up to six tonnes of payload into geosynchronous orbit. Sea Launch rocket components are manufactured by SDO Yuzhnoye/PO Yuzhmash in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine (Zenit rocket for the first and second stages); by Energia in Moscow, Russia (Block DM-SL for third stage); and by Boeing Seattle, USA (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, fuelled and encapsuled in Payload Processing Facility in nearby harbour). The rocket is then transferred to a horizontal hangar on the self-propelled launch platform.

Following rocket tests, both ships then sail 3000 miles to the equator at 154 degrees West Longitude, in international waters 230 miles from Christmas Island of the Pacific nation of Kiribati. The platform travells the distance in about 11 days, the command ship in about eight days.

With the platform balasted to its launch depth, the hangar is opened, the rocket is automatically moved to a vertical position, and the crew leaves to the command ship which moves about three miles away. Then, with the launch platform unmanned, the rocket is fueled and launched.

Date Payload Mass Comments
March 27 1999 DemoSat 4.5 t success
October 9 1999 DIRECTV 1-R 3.5 t success
March 12 2000 ICO F-1 2.7 t failure
July 28 2000 PAS-9 3.7 t success
October 20 2000 Thuraya-1 5.1 t success
March 18 2001 XM-2 ROCK 4.7 t success
May 8 2001 XM-1 ROLL 4.7 t success
June 15 2002 Galaxy IIIC 4.9 t success
June 10 2003 Thuraya-2 5.2 t success
August 7 2003 EchoStar IX/Telstar 13 4.7 t success
September 30 2003 Galaxy XIII/Horizons-1 4.1 t success
January 10 2004 Telstar 14/Estrela do Sul 1 4.7 t success
May 4 2004 DIRECTV-7S 5.5 t success
June 28 2004 Telstar-18 4.8 t launch anomaly
March 1 2005 XM-3 4.7 t success
April 26 2005 SPACEWAY-1 6 t success
June 23 2005 Intelsat IA-8 5.5 t success
November 8 2005 Inmarsat 4-F2 6.0 t success
February 15 2006 EchoStar X 4.3 t success
April 12 2006 JCSAT-9 9,703 lb success

Concerns and investigations

During project development, in 1998 Boeing was fined 10 million dollars by U.S. Department of State for technical violations of Arms Export Control Act in handling of missile technology while dealing with its foreign Sea Launch partners [7], the largest civil penalty of its kind (although it could have been as much as $102 million). The Sea Launch project was suspended for two months during the investigation.

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 [8]. The violations were uncovered by Boeing's internal investigation.

At about the same time U.S. Customs Service attempted to block Sea Launch from bringing Zenit 3SL rockets (classified as missiles) into California for assembly without munitions import licence. The matter was settled in company's favour [9].

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 people of Pacific nation of Kiribati.

The project was criticized in 1997 by International Transport Workers Federation (ITWF) for registering its sea vessels in Liberia [10]. In May 1999 Sea Launch reached an agreement with the ITWF, which allows crew members to use ITWF inspectors.

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 highest at the equator, which provides an extra launch "boost";
  • The amount of orbital correction required to achieve a geostationary inclination is reduced;
  • An ocean launch reduces risks related to launching over populated areas.

See also

External links

fr:Sea Launch ru:Морской старт