High-seas launch worries islanders
Private satellite businesses are booming across the globe, but efforts to dodge regulation may cause harm.
If Isaac Asimov, Jules Verne, and Tom Clancy got together to write a novel, it might read something like this: Cold-war-era military-industrial rivals get together, put commercial satellites atop ballistic missiles, and launch them into space from a gigantic floating oil platform towed to the middle of the Pacific.Skip to next paragraph
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Sometime next month, that's exactly what's scheduled to happen. Sea Launch Limited Partnership, a joint venture between Boeing and companies in Russia, Ukraine, and Norway, will begin launching satellites from a converted oil rig, some 500 miles from the easternmost islands of the Pacific nation of Kiribati.
By launching from the middle of nowhere - far outside national borders - the venture reduces infrastructure and labor costs, ducks regulatory bodies, and minimizes the risk of liability in the event one of the Sea Launch rockets crashes back to earth.
But the unprecedented venture has actually attracted scrutiny not only from Kiribati and its South Pacific neighbors but also from an international labor union and the US State Department, which last year levied a $10-million fine for export control violations.
"Sea Launch is a wake-up call that we need to address the international regulatory environment," says Pat Dasch, executive director of the Washington- based National Space Society, which promotes space exploration. "Space is a global business involving multinational companies that can launch from almost anywhere, so there's a need for international agreements to clarify liability, safety, and regulatory issues."
The information revolution is fueling demand for telecommunications satellites, which handle everything from cell phones and pagers to television and the Internet. And commercial satellite makers will launch nearly 900 craft over the next decade, according to the Teal Group, an aerospace consulting firm in Fairfax, Va. That has aerospace companies scrambling to open new launch facilities to handle the demand, which is expected to strain traditional government launch sites like the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Companies that can launch satellites cheaper and more reliably than their competitors stand to earn big profits.
That was the idea behind Sea Launch, a venture licensed in the Cayman Islands that uses Rus- sian and Ukrainian boosters to launch Boeing-procured payloads in international waters from Liberian-flagged, Norwegian-controlled ships based in California and crewed by Filipinos. It's a combination that Sea Launch touts as a more affordable and reliable way to put your satellite into orbit.
As in so many businesses, in space launching, location is important. The closer you are to the equator, the less fuel you need to place an object in geostationary orbit. The US and the former Soviet Union located their launch facilities in the southern parts of their countries, while the Europeans launch their satellites from South America.
Sea Launch gains a competitive edge by placing its launch platform - a converted North Sea oil rig - right on the equator. A purpose-built command ship accompanies the self-propelled platform on its 11-day trip from Long Beach, Calif., and houses personnel and a floating control room. The result: a 10 to 15 percent fuel savings when compared with Cape Canaveral, which is 28 degrees farther north.
"Launching directly from the equator allows us to lift a heavier payload, or place a satellite into a higher orbit where it will have an extended lifetime," says Sea Launch spokesman Terrance Scott in Long Beach. "We have reduced infrastructure costs and a high degree of launch flexibility."
While industry sources say the company probably thought at first that they'd avoid national regulations, in the end they found themselves beholden to regulations in several countries simultaneously, including the United States. Mr. Scott says the project's winning combination of technology and know-how represents "post-peristroika cooperation at its best."