Three years after Sea Launch spiralled towards bankruptcy following the explosion of its Zenit 3SL rocket, the satellite launch provider is preparing to restart operations.

Sea Launch began providing satellite launches from a converted semi-submersible oil rig in 1999. If a Delaware court approves its reorganisation plan, the company could resume land launches from the Baikonur space centre in Kazakhstan in the first half of 2011, and sea launches from its ocean-going platform later that year.

Both land and sea launches use the Zenit rocket. But the more expensive sea-based missions allow a much greater payload - up to 6,100kg (13,440lb) against about 3,600kg - because the sea platform can be positioned exactly on the equator, at a point about 2,250km (1,215nm) south of Hawaii.

At that point the force of the Earth's rotation gives maximum assistance to a rocket, which can lift more payload in exchange for the fuel load it must carry when launched from more northerly or southerly points.


 © Sea Launch

Positioning the launch pad on the equator boosts payload

The last sea-based launch was in April 2009, shortly before the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, citing knock-on effects from the January 2007 launch failure, cost overruns totalling $119 million and the global economic downturn.

Sea Launch communications director Paula Korn says: "It was like a perfect storm. The launch failure contributed to the conditions leading to our bankruptcy but there were also supply chain delays that were coming to a head before that."


Some thought another problem was that, unlike competitors Arianespace and International Launch Services, Sea Launch relied solely on commercial rather than government contracts.

Jean-Yves Le Gall, president of Arianespace, says: "We have to see how they restructure their business plan because it was clear in the past that it wasn't possible [with just commercial business]."

Sea Launch, however, insists that bankruptcy will not force a change of strategy and claims six commitments from existing customers for launches post-bankruptcy.

Korn says: "We may consider the possibility of cargo resupply for the [International] Space Station, but our business plan does not require government contracts to make a profit."

At present Sea Launch is precluded from US government contracts because a majority of its launch vehicle is manufactured outside the USA.

But focusing only on commercial satellites halves the company's customer base, according to research from the Satellite Industry Association, which shows that the $3.9 billion of satellite launch revenues in 2008 were evenly split between government and commercial contracts.

Rachel Villain, director space and communications at consultancy Euroconsult, believes Sea Launches faces inherent structural challenges. "The Zenit is a very robust launch vehicle but the mode of operation from a sea platform in international waters adds some specific constraints, both operational and in terms of market access," she says.

Arianespace's Le Gall believes sea launches are a sound concept, but highlights other difficulties. He says: "It's clear that once you exit the market it's hard to come back.

"However, the management of Sea Launch are skilled people and if they exit from Chapter 11 I am confident they will be successful again, but as a secondary actor with a limited number of launches."

Sea Launch is targeting an average of 4.5 launches a year at sea and two from land.

If the reorganisation is approved, Russia's Energia Overseas, whose parent company produces the upper stage of the Zenit rocket, would increase its shareholding from 25% to 85% and provide $200 million in working capital plus an equity investment of $140 million.

Sea Launch partners would all forego their claims, totalling almost $2 billion, in exchange for equity interests of unknown value. They are Boeing, which supplies the payload fairing; Norway's Aker, now merged with Kvaerner and which engineered the launch platform and command ship; and Ukraine's Yuzhmash/Yuzhnoye, which provides the second and first stages.

Sea Launch says all the major partners have approved the reorganisation, which would see Energia assume management of the supply chain.

Boeing and Yuzhmash/Yuzhnoye would continue to supply Zenit rocket components, but hold only small stakes in the relaunched company

Aker, which subcontracted Sea Launch's marine operations and served mainly as a financial partner, would have a negligible role.

Source: Flight International