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Sea Launch returns to flight with Eutelsat satellite

Posted: May 26, 2014

Sea Launch delivered a 6.6-ton European telecommunications satellite to orbit Monday after a dazzling liftoff of a Ukrainian-built Zenit 3SL rocket, marking the commercial launch company's first mission since February 2013.

The Zenit 3SL rocket lifts off from the Odyssey launch platform at 2110 GMT (5:10 p.m. EDT) Monday. Photo credit: Sea Launch
The 200-foot-tall launcher soared into blue skies over the equatorial Pacific Ocean after igniting its RD-171M main engine at 2110 GMT (5:10 p.m. EDT) and ascending from the Odyssey launch platform, a converted North Sea drilling rig acquired by Sea Launch in the 1990s.

The Zenit 3SL rocket's first two stages, designed by Yuzhnoye and built by Yuzhmash in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, fired for eight-and-a-half minutes as the booster raced east from the launch site located along the equator at 154 degrees west longitude -- about 1,400 miles south of Hawaii.

The rocket jettisoned its nose shroud, manufactured by Boeing Co., once it was above the dense lower atmosphere, shedding weight as the launcher gained speed.

A Russian-built Block DM-SL upper stage fired two times to accelerate the Eutelsat 3B communications satellite into a geostationary transfer orbit, aiming for an orbit ranging in altitude from 236 miles to 22,244 miles.

The 13,155-pound (5,967-kilogram) satellite was deployed by Sea Launch one hour after liftoff.

Sea Launch reported the rocket injected the spacecraft into an accurate orbit just a few miles off prelaunch targets. Satellite controllers established contact with Eutelsat 3B a few minutes later, confirming a successful mission on Sea Launch's first flight since a rocket failure destroyed an Intelsat communications payload in February 2013.

Investigators blamed last year's mishap on a failure inside a hydraulic steering system on the Zenit rocket's first stage.

"I am very pleased to once again announce the successful launch for our valued Eutelsat customer, our third in a row for them," said Sergey Gugkaev, CEO of Sea Launch. "I wish to express my gratitude to all of our colleagues at the launch site, home port and production and maintenance facilities for their hard work and dedication to Sea Launch program."

The Eutelsat 3B spacecraft will use an on-board engine to raise its orbit to an altitude of 22,300 miles, where its speed will match the rate of Earth's rotation, making the satellite appear to hover over a fixed location along the equator at 3 degrees east longitude.

Eutelsat 3B's 15-year mission will serve markets in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Latin America.

Artist's concept of the Eutelsat 3B satellite in orbit. Photo credit: Airbus Defence & Space
Outfitted with 10 antennas, 51 transponders and flexible beams to tailor coverage to changing market demands, Eutelsat 3B will broadcast television, Internet, and data services to millions of households, businesses and users.

"We are delighted to see Eutelsat 3B on its way to 3 degrees East and thank Sea Launch and Energia for this flawless launch," said Michel de Rosen, chairman and CEO of Paris-based Eutelsat. "Eutelsat 3B will be a powerful asset to our in-orbit resources, enabling us to increase the operational flexibility and reach we provide customers in a vast service area spanning Brazil, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia."

Airbus Defence and Space manufactured the spacecraft for Eutelsat. It carries 30 Ku-band, 12 C-band and nine Ka-band transponders. The Ka-band payload will provide broadband connectivity, including satellite Internet access for air travelers in Brazil.

Comprised of components from Ukraine, Russia, the United States and Norway, the Sea Launch system began operations in 1999. After enduring bankruptcy and three launch mishaps, Switzerland-based Sea Launch is under new Russian ownership and has a new chief executive at the helm.

In an interview before Monday's launch, Sea Launch CEO Sergey Gugkaev said the company needs to fly three missions per year at "normal pricing" to break even.

"There are lot of variables in that question -- the price of the launch, the interest that we need to pay to our financial institutions -- but I would say from three launches per year we are break-even," Gugkaev said.

Monday's flight was Sea Launch's 36th mission since 1999, and it was the third satellite owned by Eutelsat to fly on Sea Launch.

Peter Stier, a company spokesperson, said Monday that hardware for another Sea Launch mission was on schedule to support a launch as early as January 2015, but officials have not identified a payload for the mission. He said the launch provider is "actively talking to customers" about the January launch opportunity.

The Zenit rocket's two-stage core vehicle is "essentially complete" at the Yuzhmash facility in Ukraine, according to Stier, and the Block DM-SL upper stage for the next launch has already arrived from Russia at Sea Launch's home port in Long Beach, Calif.

Stier said Sea Launch has also procured a payload fairing from Boeing for the early 2015 launch opportunity.

The Zenit 3SL rocket lifts off from the Odyssey launch platform at 2110 GMT (5:10 p.m. EDT) Monday. Photo credit: Sea Launch
Officials said the time required to complete prelaunch analysis and flight design products was the primary schedule driver for the next Sea Launch mission. It takes several months to complete those tasks once a payload is assigned to a launch.

Five Sea Launch vehicles are in various states of construction to support launches over the next couple of years, Stier said.

Industry officials said there has been no interruption to rocket manufacturing at Yuzhmash so far due to the crisis in Ukraine in the aftermath of Russia's annexation of Crimea. But political turmoil, headlined by tit-for-tat sanctions instituted and threatened by the United States and Russia, have put a cloud of uncertainty over the future of many commercial satellite launches, including those by Sea Launch, which employs approximately 70 full-time workers at its home port in Southern California.

Officials worried the sanctions might restrict exports of satellites with U.S.-built components to launch on Russian rockets, but the U.S. government has not revoked any export licenses or denied any new requests since the sanctions were announced.

Sea Launch plans to launch the Energia 100 and AngolaSat communications satellites in a dual-payload configuration in 2016. Both satellites are to be manufactured by Energia, giving Sea Launch its first toehold in the Russian commercial launch market.

Sea Launch is 95 percent owned by Energia Overseas Ltd., a subsidiary of the Russian aerospace contractor which also builds the Block DM upper stage.

Sea Launch says it has multiple launch "commitments" from international satellite operators, plus the deal to launch Energia 100 and AngolaSat.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.