Will Sea Launch End Up in Brazil?

sea_launch_zenitRussia’s efforts to find a new home for its failure-prone Sea Launch company has taken officials to rising South American power — and charter BRICS member — Brazil.

That’s the word from Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin anyway.

“A quite remarkable dialogue at the level of experts is currently in progress; possibly, the idea may take shape within the BRICS group, or in our bilateral relations with Brazil, of carrying out such joint launches and furnishing assistance to Brazil in developing its space industry and making its own spacecraft,” he said, adding that Brazil already had its own space site close to the ocean that would fit in well with such tasks.

“The first network of signal calibration for our navigation system GLONASS is already in place there. In a word, we may establish a long-term friendship with Brazil in the area of high technologies,” Rogozin believes.

Sea Launch’s mobile platform and command ship are now based in California. The platform is towed to an equatorial location where it serves as a launch pad for the Zenit-3SL booster, which is jointly produced by Ukraine and Russia. The rocket’s primary payloads are communications satellites.

Sea Launch is majority owned by Russia’s Energia, which is in the process of being folded into the state-owned United Rocket and Space Corporation as part of the re-nationalization of the nation’s space industry.

Russian media have previously reported on proposals to move launch operations to Vietnam. More recently, there was a report that Sea Launch might be sold to an Israeli company.

Sea Launch was initially a joint venture of American, Russian, Ukrainian and Norwegian partners. The company struggled to win launch contracts as it suffered launch failures. Sea Launch entered bankruptcy, eventually emerging with Energia as the majority partner.

The company has continued to experience launch failures and difficulty in winning contracts. In August, Sea Launch announced a series of cost-cutting measures in response to a gap in planned launches. The measures involved layoffs and the temporary mothballing of the launch platform and command ship.

Brazil’s coastal Alcantara Launch Center is not far from the equator. It could potentially serve as the home port for the seagoing launch platform providing it has sufficient port facilities.

Sea Launch could greatly enhance Brazil’s space effort, which has struggled for decades to expand beyond sounding rockets. The nation’s Southern Cross program, which aims to develop a family of launch vehicles, has been scaled back and suffered repeated delays.

Alcantara Cyclone Space, a joint Brazilian-Ukrainian venture, plans to launch upgraded Soviet-era Cyclone-4 boosters from Alcantara. The maiden launch has been slipping for years; the most recent estimate is for sometime in 2015.

The table below shows the capabilities of the Cyclone-4 and Zenit-SL3 launch vehicles as well as the two-stage Zenit-2 booster operated out of Baikonur. I’ve also added a couple of launch vehicles under development in Brazil to show the range of launch vehicles that might end up operating from the nation in the years ahead.

LAUNCHER
LEO
SSO
GTO
Microsat Launch Vehicle (VLM)
150 kg (331 lb)
Satellite Launch Vehicle (VLS-1)250 kg (551 lb)
Cyclone-45,685 kg (12,533 lb)3,910 kg (8,620 lb)1,600 kg (3,527 lb)
Zenit-SL36,160 kg (13,580 lb)
Zenit-SL3 (Enhanced)
6,400 kg (14,110 lb)
Zenit-2*
13,740 kg (30,292 lb)5,000 kg (11,000 lb)

* Figures for launches from Baikonur Cosmodrome.

The VLM rocket is a joint project with Germany. VLS-1 is a domestically produced small satellite launch vehicle.

Sea Launch’s Zenit-SL3 rocket is a three-stage vehicle specifically designed for geosynchronous communications satellites. It’s possible that these boosters could be used for launching other types of payloads. Brazil’s ability to orbit a range of payloads would be enhanced if a Sea Launch deal included provisions for land operations of Zenit-2 boosters from Alcantara.

There are several potential drawbacks from Brazil’s standpoint. Like the Cyclone-4, the Zenit launchers are produced abroad. That doesn’t leave very much room for Brazil to develop its own booster technology.

Brazilian and Ukrainian officials have talked about upgrading the Cyclone-4 rocket into the Cyclone-5 in order to launch larger payloads. It’s unclear how a deal with Sea Launch might affect those plans, if at all.

Finally, Zenit boosters have been plagued by failures and low market penetration. Sea Launch has struggled and already went through bankruptcy once.  Any Brazilian investment in the program would likely be contingent on credible assurances about quality control and  Sea Launch’s commercial potential.

  • windbourne

    I have to wonder if this is not just a waste of money.

  • Sam Moore

    I honestly have no idea how Sealaunch is a going concern at this point.

  • Douglas Messier

    Inertia at energia.

  • Linsey Young

    Since Alacantra is so close to the equator I can’t see much benefit from this to Brazil. Russia is the player most in need of an equatorial launch pad – they seem to be resorting to Plesetsk quite a lot at the moment. I’m still amazed that they were aiming for GEO with that Angara 5.