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Monday, 13 March, 2000, 12:09 GMT
Crashed rocket is bitter blow
Sea Launch
The equatorial location harnesses the Earth's rotation
By BBC News Online's Damian Carrington

A rocket and its satellite cargo crashed into the Pacific Ocean on Sunday, delivering a heavy blow to an innovative system of launching space satellites and to a nascent global communications network.

Blast off was successful but the second stage failed
Blast off was successful but the second stage failed
The Sea Launch system uses a converted oil rig to launch satellites on the equator. But the first indications are that the second stage of the Ukrainian-made Zenit-3 SL rocket failed to fire.

This sent its payload, a communications satellite costing tens of millions of dollars, plunging into the water.

No confidence booster

The failure will dent confidence in Sea Launch, whose first commercial launch last October was successful.

It is also a setback for the Ukraine, which had been hoping the Sea Launch project would provide a financial boost for its rocket-making space industries.

This business is not for the faint of heart

Sea Launch President Will Trafton
The rocket blasted off on schedule at 1449 GMT from the Sea Launch platform, positioned about 370 km (230 miles) from Christmas Island.

But launch controllers on the accompanying command ship lost contact with the rocket several minutes after launch. It is believed that the second stage of the rocket failed to fire and that the rocket and satellite crashed back to Earth into the Pacific about 4,200 km (2,600 miles) from the launch site.

Tough business

"We have no damage to the command ship or the launch platform, no injuries to anyone, thank God," said Sea Launch President Will Trafton.

"I offer my sincerest regrets and assure all of our customers that we will determine the cause of this failure. This is a tough business, and failures are an unfortunate part of this industry," he said.

The 2.7 tonne satellite carried by the rocket was intended to be the first in a 12-strong constellation providing global mobile voice and data communications by the end of 2002.

Satellite insured

The London-based company behind the venture is ICO Global Communications and their spokesman Michael Johnson told BBC News Online: "We are disappointed but the fact is this failure will have no impact on our business because we had always planned 12 satellites, of which two were spare.

The satellite was built by Hughes Space and Communications Company
"The satellite is insured so it will have no financial impact," he added. The whole constellation has been covered but the premium paid has not been revealed.

ICO was delisted from the Nasdaq index in December 1999 after it filed for US Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The company has already spent $3bn on the project and needs to spend the same again to deliver services. Craig McCaw, founder of satellite communications company Teledesic, has recently pledged $1.2bn.

The next opportunity for ICO to launch comes in July, using a Proton rocket from the Baikonur space centre in Kazakhstan, but this has not been confirmed.

Investigation begins

Sea Launch is a multinational project involving Boeing, Norway's Kvaerner Group, Russia's Energiya spacecraft builder and Ukraine's Yuzhnoye rocket company.

"An investigation is planned," said Boeing spokesman Javier Mendoza. "The rocket suffered an anomaly after launch and we are waiting for the details."

The last year has seen considerable trouble both for rocket launches and attempts to found global satellite-based communications systems.

Russian and Japanese rockets have failed spectacularly and Iridium, the satellite phone company, said on Friday that their service would end on 17 March unless a buyer is found.

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See also:

09 Dec 99 | Sci/Tech
The roaring business of rockets
15 Nov 99 | Sci/Tech
Japan's rocket hopes explode
11 Oct 99 | Sci/Tech
Sea launch heralds new space era
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