Sea-Lost : Sea Launch Suffers Major Launch Failure

Sea Launch A G suffered a major, and possibly crippling setback in efforts to regain a meaningful market position in the early hours of Friday morning (EST) when its Zenit 3-SL launch vehicle veered off its course immediately following liftoff.  50 seconds later, the main engine shut down, terminating thrust and sending the rocket and its Intelsat -27 payload on a ballistic course which impacted the Pacific ocean relatively close to the Ocean Odyssey platform.  Intelsat -27, a 13,000 lb telecommunications platform headed for geostationary orbit and service over the Atlantic,  was insured for $400 million.

In the on again / off again video feed from the equatorial launch site, the rocket can clearly be seen deviating for a normal trajectory within seconds of liftoff.

The failure could be a very serious blow for Sea Launch, which has been struggling to find customers, and dealing with slow parts supply following  its emergence from Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2010.   That re-organization was precipitated in part by a 2007 explosion and flight failure which also damaged its launch platform. Altogether the company, 40% of which was once owned by Boeing, but is now held by Energia Overseas Limited,  has suffered three failures and one anomaly in 35 launch attempts.

The Zenit- 3SL first stage, which is built in the Ukraine, is powered by a single, Russian built RD-171 engine, features four separate combustion chambers and nozzles supplied by a single turbopump.  At 1.77 million lbf thrust it is the most powerful engine assembly in the world, eclipsing even the Saturn F-1, which still holds the record as the largest single chamber engine.    The United Launch Alliance Atlas V RD-180 engine, which experienced another successful flight just two days prior, is a derivative of the RD-171, with approximately 60% parts commonality.  Although there are major differences between the two, particularly with the method employed for steering, the RD-180 is in effect one half of an RD-171, and this failure is a possible point of concern until the exact cause is determined.

The latest failure means that of three active large commercial satellite launch vehicles,  Zenit 3SL  (as well as its Land Launch stablemate),  Proton and Ariane V,  only the latter could be considered to be highly reliable.

With the Russian Proton marketed commercially by ILS continuing to suffer through a series of problems, and SpaceX still needing to demonstrate its new Falcon 9 v1.1, this latest launch failure appears to endorse, at least for the moment,  ESA’s decision to slow walk any substantive changes to the market dominating Ariane V, which currently boasts a record of 52 consecutive successful launches.  It also underscores once again the opportunity lost to United Launch Alliance in not finding a way to make either of its booster families commercially competitive.  It also may the open the door a bit further for China’s commercial launch ambitions, at least for payloads free of U.S. export controlled content.

As for SpaceX, which has been signing up commercial orders at a rapid pace, the opportunity, and the challenge is clear.  If the company can manage a successful and timely introduction of the Falcon V 1.1, and begin clearing its manifest, then it is in a position to achieve unprecedented economies of scale in the coming years and maintain a price position which many once considered flatly impossible.

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