Sea Launch Prepares To Set Sail with IS-19 Damage Still a Mystery

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PARIS — Launch services provider Sea Launch AG is preparing to launch Eutelsat and Intelsat satellites in December and January even as it works to unravel the mystery of what caused substantial damage to a Space Systems/Loral-built Intelsat that Sea Launch orbited in May, Sea Launch President Kjell Karlsen said.

“There’s got to be something” in the telemetry from the May launch that would indicate why the Intelsat IS-19 satellite separated from the Sea Launch upper stage with severe damage to one of the solar arrays, Karlsen said in a Sept. 10 interview here during World Satellite Business Week, organized by Euroconsult. “But so far we have gone through all our data and couldn’t find anything that is out of specification.”

Following an initial Sea Launch investigation that found no rocket-related anomalies, Luxembourg- and Washington-based Intelsat agreed to proceed with the mid-August launch of the IS-21 satellite, which was built by Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, Calif. The launch was a success.

Paris-based Eutelsat is scheduled to launch its Eutelsat 70B telecommunications satellite aboard a Sea Launch rocket in early December, and Sea Launch said Sept. 20 that the Zenit 3SL rocket’s Block DM upper stage arrived at Sea Launch’s home port in Long Beach, Calif., on Sept. 19.

Intelsat is set to launch its IS-27 satellite, also built by Boeing, in January on a Sea Launch Zenit.

The fact that Intelsat and Eutelsat, respectively the largest and third-largest commercial fleet operators, would agree to move forward with Sea Launch with the blessing of their insurance underwriters is an indication that insurers and satellite owners believe the IS-19 solar-array damage may be the result of a lack of compatibility between the Space Systems/Loral (SS/L) 1300 satellite bus and the environment inside the Sea Launch fairing.

This theory is reinforced by the fact that a similar incident occurred in 2004, when the SS/L-built Telstar 14/Estrela do Sul-1 satellite was released in orbit by Sea Launch with massive solar-array damage. Then as now, Sea Launch and SS/L found nothing pointing to anomalies in either the rocket or the satellite.

Satellite operators and insurance underwriters eventually put aside the issue, and SS/L and Sea Launch moved on. Sea Launch orbited seven SS/L-built satellites since then, before the May launch.

Karlsen said neither Bern, Switzerland-based Sea Launch nor Palo Alto, Calif.-based SS/L will let it drop this time around.

“I can tell you that we’re going to push this as far as we can,” Karlsen said. “I’ve spoken to John [Celli, SS/L’s president] several times and we’re in lockstep on this. SS/L and Sea Launch teams are meeting three times a week on this.”

The two companies have appointed a three-member independent oversight board to review the investigation, which up to now has been run by SS/L and Sea Launch, with the participation of Intelsat. The companies hope that with this added layer of experts looking at the problem, a root cause of the anomaly will be discovered.

Karlsen declined to say how long SS/L and Sea Launch would maintain an active investigation, which can be costly for both companies. Sea Launch is paying for its share of the investigation and related analyses performed by Boeing Commercial Space Co., which builds the Sea Launch payload accommodation structures and the rocket’s fairing. Karlsen allowed as how the May incident occurred at a particularly bad time for Sea Launch, which he said had begun to regain the consideration of the market after a 2007 failure and subsequent Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization.

Sea Launch emerged from the reorganization as a Swiss-registered company — its previous headquarters were in California — majority-owned by Energia Logistics, a unit of Russian space hardware builder RSC Energia of Korolev, Russia.

Sea Launch’s supply chain is still catching up with the requirements of the postbankruptcy company, and the operator for now has booked only the Intelsat IS-21 launch in 2013, Karlsen said, although space remains for a late-2013 liftoff. By 2014, Sea Launch will begin what Karlsen said should be a cruise-phase level of at least three launches a year. The reorganized company, with lower debt service payments, is designed to be profitable with three launches per year from its floating platform towed to the equatorial launch spot in the Pacific Ocean for each campaign.

Karlsen said the Sea Launch Odyssey platform was refurbished in Malaysia in 2011 to make it seaworthy for another 15 years. “The ship and the platform are almost like brand new now. We’re looking to utilize these assets for many years going forward,” he said.

Sea Launch’s Pacific Ocean operation specializes in launching large telecommunications satellites to geostationary-transfer orbit, in direct competition with International Launch Services (ILS) of Reston, Va., which markets Russia’s Proton Breeze-M vehicle.

The August failure of the Proton Breeze-M upper stage — the second failure of this stage in 12 months — was cited by Russian political authorities as evidence of a quality control issue in Russia’s space hardware industrial base.

Karlsen, who is not accustomed to coming to the aid of ILS, denied that this is the case, and noted that the Proton rocket has flown 45 times since 2008, which is more than any other vehicle active in the market. Sea Launch is built mainly by Ukrainian and Russian companies.

“Most [commercial launches] today occur on Russian platforms — Proton, [Sea Launch] Zenit or Soyuz,” Karlsen said. “When you take that into account there is simply no evidence of any deterioration in quality.”

 

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