Russian Rocket Fails To Deliver US Satellite Into Orbit, Crashes In Pacific
February 1, 2013

Russian Rocket Fails To Deliver US Satellite Into Orbit, Crashes In Pacific

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

Russia´s space industry has suffered yet another blow after a Zenit-3SL launch vehicle failed to deliver a US telecommunications satellite into orbit last night. The rocket, operated from a floating launch pad south of the Hawaiian Islands, failed 40 seconds after lift-off at 06:59 GMT and plunged back into the Pacific Ocean.

The Russian rocket was carrying the Intelsat-27 telecommunications satellite, which was built by Boeing Space & Intelligence Systems and was to be positioned over the Atlantic to provide TV feeds for the US, Latin America and Europe. Officials from Sea Launch AG, the company which organized the launch, confirmed the launch was a failure and said it would establish a review board to determine what went wrong.

"We are very disappointed with the outcome of the launch and offer our sincere regrets to our customer, Intelsat, and their spacecraft provider, Boeing," Kjell Karlsen, president of Sea Launch AG, said in a statement.

"The cause of the failure is unknown, but we are evaluating it and working closely with Intelsat, Boeing, Energia Logistics Ltd and our Zenit-3SL suppliers. We will do everything reasonably possible to recover from this unexpected and unfortunate event," Karlsen added.

The launch came not long after Sea Launch pulled out of Chapter 11. After a rocket failure in 2007 left the company in disarray, with orders slowing and debts piling, the company was forced to seek bankruptcy protection. The company returned to a successful program strategy in 2011, launching 4 consecutive satellites without a hiccup.

The firm uses a converted oil rig, known as Odyssey, to launch spacecraft. The oil rig and its command ship are based at Long Beach, California. However, the firm relocates to the equator at 154 degrees W Latitude for all launches. An equatorial launch gives the rocket more boost from the Earth´s natural rotation, meaning it can lift heavier payloads into orbit.

After the restructuring of Sea Launch, a Russian-led consortium headed by Energia Overseas Ltd. took control of the firm.

Vitaly Lopota, head of Energia, said the failure in the Russian rocket´s engine appeared less than a minute after lift-off. However, the reason for the failure is yet to be determined, he noted.

"We had an abnormal situation — the emergency shutdown of the first stage engine," Lopota told the state-owned RIA Novosti news agency, as cited by The Telegraph. "It happened 50 seconds into the flight. We are now looking into what happened."

Other sources said the rocket veered off course moments after it blasted off. The area had been affected by heavy waves for days, possibly affecting the launch, noted some sources.

Another source told the Interfax news agency that the “rockets detected an abnormal situation linked to platform instability from the very start, and then switched the engines over (to operations) aimed at steering the rocket away from the platform.”

Sea Launch has been conducting commercial launches since 1999. The firm has had 34 successful missions since operations began. The Intelsat-27 craft was originally due to launch on Thursday, yet officials said the extra day delay was not due to rocket unreliability or equipment issues.

Whatever the cause of the latest rocket failure, it only heightens the pressure placed on Russia, which has dealt with a series of mission failures over the past few years. And with Russia and its Soyuz now being the only viable option for ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS), their space program is under close scrutiny by NASA, the ESA and other space agencies who pay top dollar to use their services.

With Russia´s continuing string of space failures, NASA has been looking to the commercial sector to develop viable spacecraft for launching astronauts from US soil. Several companies, including SpaceX and Boeing, have partnered up with the American space agency to build the next generation of vessels that will carry astronauts into space.

Once the cause of this latest failure is identified and corrective actions are taken, Sea Launch and its partners will need to re-instill confidence in their product.

As for the Russian Zenit-3SL rocket, the vehicle has a good reliability record, with 31 of 35 launches being successful. Of the four failures, one ended in a successful recovery. A modified version, Zenit-3SLB, has had 5 successful launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome since April 2008.