Sea Launch promises return to flight in two years
The S7 Group, which owns the Sea Launch venture, has published a launch schedule for the Ukrainian-built Zenit rocket from the ocean-based platform. The missions were not expected to resume until the end of 2019, but once the did, S7 planned to fly the Zenit roughly every three months. A total of 12 launches were promised before the end of 2022.
On January 11, the Yuzhmash production plant in Dnipro, Ukraine, announced that under an April 2017 contract with S7 Sea Launch Limited, the company had already been manufacturing two Zenit rockets for delivery in 2018. The company was also expecting an additional order for three more Zenit rockets in February 2018, Yuzhmash said.
At the beginning of February, the S7 Space Systems posted an undated press-release saying that the company had been expecting to complete all the procedures pertaining to its purchase of the Sea Launch venture in March. The company said that it had already secured key licenses from the US federal government and the State Department, including one unidentified permission received in January 2018. Previously, The Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States, CFIUS, and the Defense Technology Security Administration, DTSA, approved the deal, S7 said.
The company also said that it initiated work on re-activation of the Sea Launch complex and was ordering flight hardware for future launches. A number of key spacecraft manufacturers had already expressed interest in using the Sea Launch's services, the S7 said. The company reconfirmed that Sea Launch operations would resume at the end of 2019, or a year later than originally promised.
Despite loud pronouncements in the Russian press and optimistic launch dates, experts behind the scene have seen no real progress in reviving the production of the Zenit rockets. According to Ukrainian sources, the various obstacles before the Yuzhmash factory have remained the subject of an endless correspondence with space officials in Moscow, resembling a conversation between a "blind person and a deaf one." Essentially, Russian space officials have so far been unable to help their Ukrainian colleagues in obtaining the missing components necessary for the manufacturing of the rocket.
In addition to the broken supply chain, the proposed final assembly of the Zenit in the United States also faces numerous challenges. The available processing equipment inside the Sea Launch commander vessel based in Long Beach, California, is inadequate for the integration of the RD-171M engine with the rocket's first stage as proposed by Roskosmos in order to bypass its government's ban on deliveries to Ukraine.
Renting existing industrial facilities in the United States would not suffice either, because the complex rocket would need a specialized assembly hall with custom-designed access bridges and lifting equipment.
In order to build this infrastructure by the time of the proclaimed first mission from the revived Sea Launch platform at the end of 2019, the work should have already begun in the United States, however there are no signs that it had actually taken place.
Last but not least, many of the workers, technicians and engineers who participated in the assembly of the Zenit rocket have left or retired from Yuzhmash since Russia has stopped ordering these vehicles in 2014 in the wake of the Crimean conflict. Only a skeleton team of mostly aging specialists remains at Yuzhmash. As result, the factory will certainly face a serious personnel shortage when assembling a team capable of going to the United States to resume Sea Launch operations, experts familiar with the matter said.
On April 17, S7 Group announced the closure of the deal to buy the assets of the Sea Launch venture, including the Sea Launch Commander vessel and the Odyssey platform.
In its press release, S7 Group quoted its Director General Sergei Sopov claiming the company's intention to resume launch activities as soon as possible and promising four launches per year. Sopov also forecasted around 70 launches in the next 15 years. The announcement of the deal made no mention of the continuous deadlock in the production of the Zenit rocket in Ukraine or the fact that the Russian replacement to the Zenit was still on the drawing board and was not officially scheduled for launch until 2022. Moreover, given the current realities of the Russian space industry, the new rocket most likely would not fly until the middle or even the second half of the 2020s. The absurdity of the situation was underscored by Yuri Koptev, the Head of the Scientific and Technical Council at Roskosmos, who just a day before the Sea Launch announcement, essentially admitted that without restoring the relations between Russia and Ukraine, the Zenit's future was bleak.
For all practical purposes, S7 Group found itself with expensive infrastructure on its balance sheet, but no compatible rocket to launch and no customers to serve.
On October 16, the Russian company S7 Space published a press-release about a recent trip of its representatives to KB Yuzhnoe and to the Yuzhmash machine-building plant in Ukraine. The announcement said that the visit had assessed the current status of three Zenit rockets ordered by the company and included a review of the available hardware in the shops of the production plant. "Representatives of S7 Space noted that the production is ongoing in accordance with established schedules and within quality control requirements," the press release said, "In the course of the meeting, the (two) sides discussed a number of issues related to the production, assembly and supply of the Zenit rockets."
According to S7, its representatives also met with the officials from the Ukrainian space agency, GKAU, to discuss the oversight and control over the production of the Zenit rockets and proposals for further cooperation within the Sea Launch project. According to industry sources, S7 wanted to have its permanent representative at the plant to oversee the production on a daily basis.
The press-release was accompanied by a number of photos showing the components of the Zenit rocket and its engines, including a pair of the RD-120 engines and four combustion chambers for RD-8 steering thrusters for Zenit's second stage.
The very fact that a team from Russia was able to make an official business trip to Ukraine and even advertise it is remarkable by itself under the current political climate, but whether it can translate into a workable cooperation between Russia and Ukraine on the development of such a complex system like Zenit remains to be seen, experts familiar with the matter said. Ukraine so far succeeded in retaining the production of key rocket components, such as tanks and pressurized vessels thanks to the Antares program delivering a Ukrainian-built first-stage booster to the United States. However, the development of propulsion systems in Ukraine faces much bigger challenges, due to the continuing lack of structural materials and qualified personnel, as well as the need for major production equipment upgrades. In particular, Ukrainians had to make a difficult switch from Russian to European suppliers of specialized bronze, which is critical in the production of rocket engines. An effort two years earlier to produce the bronze of necessary quality domestically had not been successful, industry sources said.
The supply of the Russian-built RD-171 engines for Zenit's first stage had also apparently remained unresolved, but on October 22, Roskosmos published a press-release saying that the S7 and NPO Energomash had decided "to form an agreement about the conditions of purchasing and supply of sellable RD-171M engines."
Another sentence in the October 22 press-release said that the agreement between S7 and Energomash "had envisioned the development of cooperation in the field of resuming production, certification and commercial sales of ground-launched and high-altitude versions of one of the engines developed at NPO Energomash for (its) use in projects in the interests of S7, as well as within prospective and upgraded launch vehicles of different classes, including those in the framework of the international cooperation."
Though this passage did not identify the particular engine, it clearly referred to the Energomash-designed and Ukrainian-produced RD-120 engine, which KB Yuzhnoe hoped to convert from the high-altitude to the ground-based version under name RD-870. That modified engine was intended for Ukraine's proposed Tsyklon-4M launcher, which in turn, was an upgrade of the Tsyklon-4 rocket from the now defunct Ukrainian-Brazilian venture.
According to industry sources, Energomash and KB Yuzhnoe had already been engaged in a prolonged but so-far fruitless exchanges of letters on licensing of the RD-120 design in Ukraine, which, in addition to legalizing the upgrade, would also enable propulsion specialists at Yuzhnoe to enlist their Russian colleagues at Energomash to support the proposed conversion from RD-120 to RD-870. Conceivably, S7 could now take responsibility for paying the necessary licensing fees to Energomash in exchange for S7's share in the Tsyklon-4M project. Given the political situation between Russia and Ukraine and the difficult state of the Ukrainian rocket industry, such a scheme looked rather far-fetched, but it was the only logical explanation for the October 22 press-release.
The Roskosmos' announcement concluded that S7 and Energomash had agreed to form a joint working group with the participation of representatives from Roskosmos for working out the details and the development of a roadmap for cooperation.
Recently, S7 advertised its ambitions to build a privately funded launch vehicle and also hired a leading rocket designer from RKK Energia, Russia's prime contractor in the Soyuz-5 project, which aims to build a Russian equivalent of the Zenit rocket.
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Zenit launches one of the Eutelsat satellites from the Sea Launch platform. Click to enlarge. Credit: Sea Launch
Sea Launch vessels moored at their home port of Long Beach, California. Click to enlarge. Credit: Sea Launch
The possible bulkhead of the Zenit rocket in production circa October 2018. Click to enlarge. Credit: S7 Space
Representatives of the S7 company inspect combustion chambers for RD-8 steering engines (top) and the RD-120 engines circa October 2018. Click to enlarge. Credit: S7 Space