KOUROU, French Guiana – The Jan. 31 failure of a Sea Launch rocket that destroyed a $406 million telecommunications satellite 40 seconds after liftoff was caused by a malfunctioning hydraulic oil pump that was not built to specifications, Sea Launch President Kjell Karlsen said April 30.

Karlsen said the pump, which pressurizes the first-stage engine gimbal actuators, had performed without incident in some 70 previous launches of various versions of the Russian- and Ukrainian-built Zenit rocket.

“It is design proven,” Karlsen said in an interview, saying the failure was caused by “something in the specific manufacturing process that happened with this specific unit. This is the first time it has failed.”

The investigation pinpointed the failure’s occurrence at 3.9 seconds into the flight.

Karlsen declined to disclose what specifically happened with this pump that allowed the defect to escape the regular hardware reviews along the way to being integrated into the rocket until Bern, Switzerland-based Sea Launch has briefed insurance underwriters and customers on the investigation.

These briefings will occur starting in late May once the final report of the failure review oversight board is completed.

But Karlsen said the investigation, led by Energia Logistics Ltd., owned by Russian space hardware builder RSC Energia and Sea Launch’s majority shareholder, left little doubt about the sequence of events that led to the failure.

“The Ukrainians did extensive testing and dug deep into the issue and found the root cause,” Karlsen said, adding that nothing in the paper trail attesting to the unit’s fitness had indicated any issues. 

“We perform quarterly acceptance reviews when we go through each product’s report,” Karlsen said. “There was nothing indicating that there had been a problem with the production.” He said one of the corrective actions recommended by the investigation is to tighten the reporting criteria.

“It looks like it will be fairly simple” to perform the recommended corrective actions, Karlsen said, which will include increased testing and modifications to the manufacturing process. 

Sea Launch and Energia did not include insurance underwriters in the failure investigation team, but insurers will need to be comfortable with the Sea Launch explanation before agreeing to insure future flights.

The Jan. 31 failure destroyed the IS-27 telecommunications satellite owned by Intelsat of Luxembourg and Washington. In addition to its Ku-band payload to replace two existing Intelsat satellites, IS-27 carried a UHF payload that had been intended for lease to U.S. or allied military customers.

The UHF payload was in part responsible for the unusually large insured value of IS-27. Intelsat expects to collect the $406 million insurance claim in the coming weeks. A replacement satellite will be built, but without the UHF payload, enabling Intelsat to use the remaining cash to reduce its debt.

Intelsat is one of several satellite operators that have signed on with Sea Launch since it emerged from U.S. Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings in October 2010. Eutelsat of Paris has also supported the company, and more recently EchoStar Corp. of Englewood, Colo., has booked a Sea Launch flight.

Sea Launch had been preparing a relatively light manifest for 2013 as it replenished its stock of rocket hardware for the Zenit 3SL. The company had planned to increase its launch rate, starting in 2014, to four commercial campaigns per year.

Sea Launch had expected to take delivery of one vehicle this spring and had been telling prospective customers that it could offer a launch, from Sea Launch’s floating platform in the Pacific Ocean, late this year.

Karlsen said the nearly assembled vehicle’s first-stage gimbal-actuator pump will be removed and tested to be sure it did not suffer the same manufacturing oversight. The company remains set for one launch late this year if it can find a customer.

The same Zenit rocket is operated for occasional Russian government launches from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Moscow-based Space International Services, which has been given limited rights to sell Sea Launch rockets commercially, had expected to launch the Amos-3 commercial telecommunications satellite owned by fleet operator Spacecom of Israel. 

The Amos-3 launch and a planned Russian government launch on the Zenit rocket, also expected this year, have been on hold pending the review of the Jan. 31 failure.


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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.