Sea Launch Commander home – Zenit fault LOX tank related

by Chris Bergin

With the Sea Launch Commander now back in port, following the January 30 failure of the Zenit 3SL launch of the NSS-8 satellite, Sea Launch workers now face a drawn out process until they set sail once again.

However, that may not be as long as feared, following source information which notes the RD-171 engine has been cleared of causing the failure – which is now believed to have been related to a LOX feedline rupture/valve failure, leading to a LOX tank pressurization failure.

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While the Odyssey Launch Platform won’t be back at Long Beach in California until February 17, the converted oil rig is making good speed, despite the damage that it sustained during the failure.

The investigation that followed the January 30 failure centred mainly around Ukrainian RD-171 contractors SDO Yuzhnoye/PO Yuzhmash (NPO Energomash), and some questions remain unanswered. One interesting note was a closed door meeting at Yuzhnoye prior to the launch, the details of which have not been revealed by the Ukrainians.

More importantly, Yuzhnoye and Energomash do appear to be making the same noises on their confidence that the RD-171 was not the cause of the failure, as focus turned towards a drop in the LOX tank pressure shortly after lift off – albeit a matter of just a few feet before the vehicle dropped through the pad and exploded.

There were some fears the turbopump – part of the RD-171 – had suffered a major failure, but sources appear to be consistent in their claims that the LOX tank pressure failure was caused by either a feedline failure, or a valve failure on the LOX tank, which would have caused an engine shutdown and subsequent failure of the vehicle.

Due to the commonality with the Atlas V’s RD-180 engine, Lockheed Martin/ULA have been watching the investigation very closely, and are being consulted on the progress being made by the Ukrainians in collating a presentation of data and findings on the failure.

The Atlas V is the vehicle that will be launching on the upcoming February 23 launch from Cape Canaveral, with six satellites for the US Air Force’s Space Test Program-1 (STP1) mission, and is technically grounded until the investigation officially clears the engine element of the Zenit 3SL failure.

Sources note that this is currently the case, although they are proceeding with preparations for the launch in the meantime, as they request the full technical outline of the Ukrainian’s findings.

How long it will take Sea Launch to return to flight is still unknown. The commercial launch company was aiming to conduct six launches in 2007, but will require both the Zenit 3SL to be cleared for flight and the Odyssey Launch Platform being repaired.

Odyssey’s escaped major damage from the explosion, but will require dry dock repairs on areas such as the flame deflector, which was blown off by the failing Zenit 3SL.

‘Our team has witnessed first hand the robustness of the Launch Platform, which was designed and built to withstand a full range of conditions, including off-nominal scenarios,’ noted Sea Launch president Rob Peckham.

‘The inherent strength of this vessel, combined with the safe and professional response of the launch team, characterizes a system that is capable of operating in the most demanding of conditions, for the purpose of serving our customers.’


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