The loss of a big -built Intelsat communications satellite in the first failure of a Sea Launch Zenit rocket since the multinational company emerged from bankruptcy protection is likely to make it more difficult for the equatorial launch provider to regain momentum.
The company has no firm missions on its manifest beyond the one that failed Jan. 31, and relies on Russian hardware at a time when the reliability of that country’s launchers has been questioned through quality-control issues.
“We are very disappointed with the outcome of the launch and offer our sincere regrets to our customer, Intelsat, and their spacecraft provider, BSSI,” said Sea Launch President Kjell Karlsen. “The cause of the failure is unknown, but we are evaluating it and working closely with Intelsat, BSSI, Energia Logistics Ltd. and our Zenit-3SL suppliers. We will do everything reasonably possible to recover from this unexpected and unfortunate event.”
The mission’s Zenit-3SL rocket lifted off at 1:56 a.m. EST from the Odyssey launch platform on the equator at 154 deg. W. Long. Sea Launch declared a loss of mission when telemetry stopped roughly 40 sec. after liftoff. A video feed showed the rocket appearing to veer off course shortly after the launch, and the Russian-built RD-171 main stage engine went dark about 25 sec. into the flight, suggesting an automatic safety shutdown.
It was the fourth failure in the company’s 35 launch attempts, and the first since it reorganized under Chapter 11 of the U.S. bankruptcy laws in October 2010. Subsequently, the Zenit was listed as the possible cause of a solar array deployment failure on Intelsat 19, which it launched on May 31, 2012. Zenit later was exonerated by an investigation board.
Intelsat 27 was destined to operate in C- and Ku-bands at 304.5 deg. E. Long, serving customers in North and South America, the North Atlantic region and Europe. That orbital slot is already occupied by the company’s Intelsat 805 and Galaxy 11 satellites, which will continue to operate there.
While customers using those two spacecraft will be served, the launch failure also destroyed a “specially designed” UHF payload for the U.S. military, and a “mobility payload” intended to serve aircraft and ships at sea. An Intelsat spokesman stressed that the UHF payload was not a “hosted payload” supplied by the military that could operate on any geostationary spacecraft, but one designed specifically for Intelsat 27.
The satellite and launch were “fully insured,” the company said. Intelsat 27 was the last in a series of replenishment birds for the company, which does not have another launch planned until the end of 2014.
“We are clearly disappointed with the outcome of the launch,” stated Intelsat CEO David McGlade. “The cause of the failure is unknown, but we will work closely with our launch and manufacturing partners to determine the necessary next steps.”
Sea Launch was formed in 1995 to take advantage of the extra launch capability afforded by using an oceangoing platform at the equator. Originally set up by Boeing with partners from Russia, Ukraine and Norway, it converted a fire-damaged oil rig into the Odyssey launch platform and outfitted a roll-on/roll-off freighter as the Sea Launch Commander, with launch control and rocket storage facilities on board.
In its bankruptcy reorganization, Energia Overseas Ltd., a subsidiary of the Russian aerospace enterprise, took a 95% interest in Sea Launch. Energia Logistics, a U.S. affiliate of Energia, was set up to run rocket assemblies and integrations at Sea Launch’s Long Beach, Calif., facility. The first two rocket stages are built by Ukraine’s Yuzhnoye and Yuzhmash, and Boeing—while relinquishing its position as the main shareholder—continues to provide fairings and launch support.