Sea Launch Rocket Successfully Returns to Flight
A Sea Launch Zenit 3SL rocket carrying the Thuraya-3 satellite launches spaceward from its Pacific Ocean launch site on Jan. 15, 2008.
Credit: Sea Launch.

PARIS - Sea Launch Co. successfully returned to flight Jan. 15 after being grounded for nearly a year, placing the Thuraya-3 mobile communications satellite into orbit and permitting Abu Dhabi-based Thuraya Satellite Telecommunications to proceed with long-stalled plans to expand into China and the rest of East Asia.

The Sea Launch Zenit 3SL rocket proceeded through its launch countdown without incident, opening what Long Beach, Calif.-based Sea Launch hopes will be a five-launch year. The company is returning to activity after an on-pad failure Jan. 21, 2007, that took the vehicle out of service.

A November attempt to launch Thuraya-3 was scrubbed because of unusually rough ocean currents at Sea Launch's mid-Pacific Ocean launch site.

Thuraya-3, which like the first two Thuraya satellites was built by Boeing Satellite Systems International of El Segundo, Calif., will be stationed in geosynchronous orbit at 98.5 degrees east longitude.

For Thuraya, it will be a new orbital position permitting the company to extend its mobile services business eastward into Asia.

Yousuf Al Sayed, Thuraya's chief executive, said the company expects to begin commercial operations on Thuraya-3 within two months. "We will immediately start deploying in China, which is important as a land market," Al Sayed said. "But we are also preparing a maritime service in Asia."

Al Sayed said a fourth Thuraya satellite that would provide in-orbit backup for the Thuraya-2 and Thuraya-3 spacecraft likely would be contracted. He did not specify when the satellite would be ordered.

Thuraya's current coverage area includes much of Europe and all of the Middle East, plus much of South and Central Asia and Africa.

For Sea Launch, the flight ended 51 weeks of occasionally frustrating return-to-flight plans and put a stop to the company's operations at a time of strong growth in the commercial satellite sector. In addition to a full backlog for the ocean-based operations, Sea Launch Co. is developing a Land Launch variant to be operated from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Land Launch's debut has struggled because of rocket supply-chain issues and, more recently, delays in the delivery of several satellites.

Several Sea Launch customers, saying their businesses could not wait for Sea Launch to recover from the January 2007 failure, signed with competing launch-services providers in 2007.

Sea Launch Co. President Rob Peckham said after the launch that the company expects its next launch to be in March. The Land Launch version is also scheduled to debut in 2008. "It feels good to be back," Peckham said, adding that the Thuraya-3 satellite was placed into an orbit whose parameters were exceptionally good.

Valery Aliev, deputy general designer for RSC Energia of Moscow, a principal Sea Launch contractor and shareholder, said Thuraya-3, while not the heaviest Sea Launch payload, "was probably the most difficult and challenging one for us. We have a special feeling for all our customers, but we have a special feeling for Thuraya," Aliev said after the launch. "We really wanted to pull through for them."