Sea Launch’s Odyssey heading to Vancouver – failure update

by Chris Bergin

In what is a key stage of Sea Launch’s return to flight plans, the refurbished Odyssey Launch Platform will head to Vancouver, where special engineering work will be carried out on replacing the flame deflector that was blown off during January’s launch failure.

The explosion of the Zenit 3SL, carrying the NSS-8 communications satellite for SES New Skies, was caused by a small foreign object – believed to be a loose bolt in the LOX tank – which was sucked into the RD-171 engine’s turbomachinery, sources note.

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Several dockyards were linked with the role of replacing the flame deflector, which is a unique part of the Launch Platform, so much so engineers had to dig out its blueprints ahead of the replacement’s fabrication. Thailand and San Diego were in line to receive the Odyssey. However, the initial frontrunner, Vancouver, has now been noted as her destination early next month.

Cosmetic and engineer work has been conducted on Odyssey whilst on dock at Sea Launch’s Home Port in Long Beach, California.

A test of the cable mast – which contains wires and connector cables that provide an electrical umbilical to the rocket – demonstrated its integrity for mission operation recently, along with the return to operations of Odyssey’s crane, aiding the cleaning up process on the platform.

The final release of findings is expected ‘soon’ – although the amount of detail that will be released is unknown. However, as to the exact cause of the failure, Russian and Ukrainian companies involved with Sea Launch’s Zenit 3SL have already been playing the media game, which led to the brazen headline in the Russian media that the cause of the accident was ‘engine failure’, which infuriated some officials.

Source information points firmly at the engine not being at fault for the failure, rather ‘improper assembly’ at NPO-Yuzhnoye facility in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, leading to the loose bolt in the LOX tank, which broke free, eventually being sucked into the turbomachinary at engine start. This either caused damage to the engine, or engine shutdown, ultimately causing the vehicle to fall through the launch pad, where it exploded on the flame deflector.

In fact, the lack of blame associated with the RD-171 has been known for some months, and played a part in allowing the United Launch Alliance (ULA) to press ahead with their Atlas V launch with STP-1 in March. Atlas was stood down in the aftermath of the Sea Launch failure due to commonality between Atlas’ RD-180 and the Zenit 3SL’s RD-171.

Sea Launch are ultimately trying to return to flight action in the latter part of this year, with the launch of the Thuraya 3 satellite. The 5250 kg Thuraya-3 satellite will be the third in the range to have been carried by Sea Launch. It is hoped that the investigation will at least outline improved work practises, which would in turn aid confidence in a speedy return to flight.

The multi-national company has already suffered heavily from the launch failure, with several contracts switching to one of their main competitors, Arianespace.

EchoStar Communications have also recently noted that they are ‘evaluating their options’ in regards to their EchoStar XI satellite, which was set to lift-off via Sea Launch this year. However, they are believed to be supportive of Sea Launch, after two previous successful launches with the company – EchoStar IX in 2003 and EchoStar X in 2006.

EchoStar recently signed a deal with another rival, ILS (International Launch Services) for an as yet unnamed satellite launch, believed to be for EchoStar 13 (a.k.a CMBStar) or the EchoStar 14 satellite. ILS – when questioned – refused to name which satellite was involved.

Also being evaluated is the launch of the DirectTV 11 satellite, which is also manifested with Sea Launch. DirectTV are monitoring Sea Launch’s efforts in returning to flight, in the hope they won’t see the launch of the Boeing 702 Model Satellite delayed by too large a degree, claiming it is too early to predict.

‘With the DirecTV 10 satellite scheduled to launch in June aboard a Proton rocket at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, we’re moving forward with our plans to roll out more HD (High Definition) channels this year,’ a DirecTV statement noted.

‘It’s too early to predict how long the Sea Launch rocket failure will delay the D11 launch. However, we have a flexible, robust fleet of satellites and a variety of options available to us to continue our national and local HD rollout.’


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