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Failure Prone Zenit Launch Vehicle Successfully Returns to Flight

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
September 3, 2013
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Land Launch Zenit booster

The problem-plagued Zenit launch vehicle returned to flight on Saturday with the successful launch of the Israeli Amos-4 communications satellite from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The 3.5-ton satellite, which was built by Israel Aerospace Industries for Israeli operator Spacecom, will deliver Ka- and Ka-band communications to the portions of the Middle East, Russia and south and east Asia.

This is the first successful flight of the rocket since the failure of a Sea Launch Zenit-3SL on Feb. 1. The launch vehicle crashed into the Pacific Ocean shortly after take-off when its first stage failed, taking the Intelsat 27 satellite down with it.

The Zenit launch vehicle, which has a success rate of just over 85 percent, was originally intended for multiple uses. Four Zenits were attached to the core of the giant Energia launch system designed to lift the Buran space shuttle into orbit. Zenits were also designed to fly separately as a replacement for the Soyuz booster for manned flights and as a satellite launcher.

However, the Soviet government retired the Energia launch system after only two flights.  Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Zenit production ended up under the control of the newly independent Ukrainian government. Russia subsequently abandoned the idea using the rocket to replace the Soyuz booster for human spaceflight.

Zenits, which come in two- and three-stage configurations, are primarily used to launch single communications satellites. They are launched from two locations: the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and an ocean-going platform towed from the United States to an equatorial location. Sea Launch handles the ocean launches and also provides flights from Baikonur through Land Launch.

The rocket has had a troubled history since its introduction in 1985. A total of 81 Zenits have been launched, with 69 successes, 9 failures and three partial failures. The complete success rate is only 85.2 percent.

Variant Launch Site Successes Failures Partial Failures Totals
Zenit 2 Baikonur 30 6 2 38
Zenit 3SL Pacific 31 3 1 35
Zenit 3SLB Baikonur 6 0 0 6
Zenit 3F Baikonur 2 0 0 2
TOTALS: 69 9 3 81

The multi-national Sea Launch consortium was formed in 1995 to launch Zenit rockets from a platform in the Pacific Ocean. The partners included Boeing of the United States, Energia of Russia, SDO Yuzhnoye/PO Yuzhmash of Ukraine, and Aker Solutions of Norway.

Sea Launch has 35 flights under its belt since 1999, with 31 successes, 3 failures and 1 partial failure, for a success rate of 88.6 percent.

# Date Payload Licensee Launch Site Result
35 Feb 01, 2013 Intelsat 27 Energia Pacific Failure — first stage anomaly
34 Dec 03, 2012 Eutelsat 70B Energia Pacific Success
33 Aug 18, 2012 Intelsat 21 Energia Pacific Success
32 Jun 01, 2012 Intelsat-19 Energia Pacific Success
31 Sep 24, 2011 Atlantic Bird 7 Energia Pacific Success
30 Apr 20, 2009 SICRAL 1B Sea Launch Pacific Success
29 Sep 24, 2008 Galaxy 19 Sea Launch Pacific Success
28 Jul 16, 2008 EchoStar XI Sea Launch Pacific Success
27 May 21, 2008 Galaxy 18 Sea Launch Pacific Success
26 Mar 19, 2008 DIRECTV 11 Sea Launch Pacific Success
25 Jan 15, 2008 Thuraya D3 Sea Launch Pacific Success
24 Jan 30, 2007 NSS-8 Sea Launch Pacific Failure — vehicle exploded after liftoff
23 Oct 30, 2006 XM Radio 4 Sea Launch Pacific Success
22 Aug 22, 2006 Koreasat 5 Sea Launch Pacific Success
21 Jun 18, 2006 Galaxy 16 Sea Launch Pacific Success
20 Apr 11, 2006 JCSat 9 Sea Launch Pacific Success
19 Feb 15, 2006 Echostar X Sea Launch Pacific Success
18 Nov 08, 2005 INMARSAT-4F2 Sea Launch Pacific Success
17 Jun 23, 2005 Intelsat Americas 8 Sea Launch Pacific Success
16 Apr 26, 2005 Spaceway-1 Sea Launch Pacific Success
15 Mar 01, 2005 XM-3 Sea Launch Pacific Success
14 Jun 29, 2004 Telstar 18 Sea Launch Pacific Partial failure — upper stage underperformed, satellite reached intended orbit with own fuel and exceeded planned lifetime
13 May 04, 2004 DTV 7S Sea Launch Pacific Success
12 Jan 11, 2004 Estrela do Sul Sea Launch Pacific Success
11 Oct 01, 2003 Galaxy 13 Sea Launch Pacific Success
10 Aug 08, 2003 Echostar IX Sea Launch Pacific Success
9 Jun 07, 2003 Thuraya II Sea Launch Pacific Success
8 Jun 15, 2002 GALAXY IIIC Sea Launch Pacific Success
7 May 08, 2001 XM-1 Sea Launch Pacific Success
6 Mar 18, 2001 XM-2 Sea Launch Pacific Success
5 Oct 21, 2000 THURAYA-1 Sea Launch Pacific Success
4 Jul 28, 2000 PAS 9 Sea Launch Pacific Success
3 Mar 12, 2000 ICOF-1 Sea Launch Pacific Failure — premature cutoff of second stage
2 Oct 09, 1999 DIRECTV 1R Sea Launch Pacific Success
1 Mar 28, 1999 Mass Simulator Sea Launch Pacific Success

Sea Launch’s history has been as troubled as its launches. A spectacular January 2007 failure in which the Zenit exploded on the launch pad set off a series of delays, financial obligations and customer defections that destabilized the company’s finances. Sea Launch filed for bankruptcy in June 2009.

In late October 2010, the company re-emerged from bankruptcy with an Energia subsidiary upping its share of the partnership from 25 percent to 95 percent. Boeing and Aker, now known as Kvaerner Moss Technology, split the remaining 5 percent.

The first four launches conducted under the new arranged succeeded. However, problems re-emerged in February when the Zenit launch vehicle failed shortly after lift-off and nose-dived into the sea.

Later that same month, Boeing sue Sea Launch, saying it is owed $350 million as a result of the bankruptcy. The lawsuit claims that the partners agreed to reimburse Boeing for investments the company made in Sea Launch if the venture failed. The legal action targets the Energia subsidiary that now runs Sea Launch. That subsidiary is owned by Energia and SDO Yuzhnoye/PO Yuzhmash.

5 responses to “Failure Prone Zenit Launch Vehicle Successfully Returns to Flight”

  1. Nickolai says:

    I don’t think it’s accurate to refer to Buran as a launch system. It was only the payload, the carrier rocket’s name was Energia (same as the famous company)

    As I recall, one of the reasons for Energia’s architecture, specifically the decision to place the LOX/LH2 engines on the “external tank” as opposed to the orbiter was the Soviet’s lack of confidence in making a reusable LOX/LH2 engine. Up until the decision to create the RD-0120, Soviet experience with that propellant combination was limited to a few experimental thrusters producing a few tons of thrust, unlike the US, which already had the RL-10 and the J-2. They figured they could create a LOX/LH2 engine with similar performance characteristics to the SSME, but decided not to go for re-use. Given the SSME’s early history with reusability, it sounds like it was a good decision.

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