rocket launched from secret floating-island base

I hadn't heard about this: apparently there's a company called Sea Launch who put satellites into orbit from a modified oil platform on the equator in the Pacific:

Update: There was a good, detailed article about these and related folks in The Atlantic in 2003.

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50 Responses:

  1. loosechanj says:

    There's a company that does it from airplanes too.

  2. etcetera5 says:

    they even have a big seafood fest during launch (use to work in the biz). launch is like a small vacation, though loud at times.

  3. lars_larsen says:

    These guys have been around for a long time, I didnt know they were doing launches yet.

    I think its a stupid idea, imagine if one of those rockets explode. Fire is a huge risk on oil rigs, and they DONT have tons of explosives onboard.

    • loosechanj says:

      I don't imagine they leave anyone on the rig during a launch, even without considering an explosion. And any other time it's not really any more dangerous than a land pad.

    • flim_flam says:

      Doesn't the oil contribute a fair bit to that risk? I would assume they don't continue drilling, as a sideline...

      • lars_larsen says:

        Oil is less dangerous than rocket fuel. Just put a cup of crude oil on your desk, and a cup of solid rocket fuel.

        Light the crude oil (or at least attempt to), count how many fingers you have left.

        Now light the rocket fuel. If you can still see, count how many fingers you have left, if any.

        • zonereyrie says:

          Yes, but they don't have massive quantities of fuel on board the launch platform. The problem with oil rig fires is that when they get out of control it is invariably do to the well continuing to feed fuel into the fire under pressure - or in the case of things like Piper Alpha One all the pressure in the pipelines leading from the platform blowing back into the platform when the valves give.

          The platform has one Zenit rocket on board and just enough fuel for that launch. IIRC the Zenit is LOX/Kerosene.

          The system as a whole is capable of multiple launches per trip - but they haven't done that yet. The mothership hauls the rockets in a horizontal position. It docks with the launch platform and the rocket is transferred. The mother ship moves off and the rocket is erected for launch and fueled, then launched. They can carry three rockets, IIRC - the system was designed during the .com bubble when everyone was talking about a massive launch surge. Sea Launch kind ot expected to be making rapid round trips loaded with rockets. That didn't quite work out.

          • lars_larsen says:

            Yeah, I'm suprised it took so long for them to do a launch. Then again, they thought they were going to turn shuttles around every couple weeks. LOL!

            I dont care what you say, LOX + anything = explosive death. You say they dont have massive quantities of fuel on the platform? The platform ITSELF becomes fuel with LOX around.

            Its at least as dangerous, if not more dangerous than an oil rig. At least in an oil fire there are a couple minutes to escape before the entire rig melts down. With this, you'd be blown to bits, and even if you werent, the heat of the fire would create instant flashover on anything flammable.

            Have you ever seen the webpage of the guy who lights a bar-b-que with liquid oxygen? :)

            Ever seen footage of a rocket exploding on the pad? That makes an oil fire look like childs play.

            But its a moot point. It has been pointed out here that the whole point of this thing is to remove all people from the platform, and if it does blow up, at least everything that blew up was cheap.

            BTW, Thanks for the info on how they load the rockets, I didnt know that.

          • txdave says:

            Actually if you check out their website. You'll see that they load the rocket onto the launch platform while in Long Beach CA. Only when using their two launches per trip capability (which they have never done) do they have to move the rocket to the launch platform while in the middle of the ocean. They clear the launch platform and control everything from the command ship 3 miles away. This was their 12th successful launch with one failed attempt.

    • roninspoon says:

      I seriously doubt that the oil platform being used is used to drill for oil at the same time they're launching giant roman candles off the deck. I find it difficult to imagine a world where engineers decide that it's okay to launch rockets from active oil rigs.

      • lars_larsen says:

        Its rathar insulting to assume that I would think they would launch missiles from an ACTIVE OIL RIG?

        Come on, do I look that stupid? On second thought, dont answer that :)

    • The floating platform was built just to launch rockets.

      • lars_larsen says:

        I realize that. I wasnt implying it had millions of gallons of hydrocarbon fuels on it.

        What I meant was, if that rocket explodes, there is nowhere to run. Plus, any control building on it would have to be within the blast radius.

        • kespernorth says:

          See above -- the launch is controlled from that big ship in the background, safely a couple of miles away.

          What, did you think this was NASA?

  4. mbravo says:

    This is a complex joint venture between Boeing (the money), Norwegians (who built the ships), Russians (who provide the acceleration module (engines), and the actual launchpad mounted on the floating platform, as well as all the launch automation and control systems) and Ukrainians (who build the rocket).

    As far as I know, the whole thing is rather successful.

    • zonereyrie says:

      Yeah - so far it has been very successful. Not as successful financially as technically, but they've proven the system works very well. I've been following Sea Launch since it was a concept - mostly because I subscribe to Aviation Week. :-)

  5. stephendann says:

    I just can't stop humming the Thunderbirds theme when I look at the pictures or the website.


  6. akuchling says:

    The Atlantic had an article on Sea Launch last year that provides some more details.

  7. linoleumcp says:

    I'm waiting with excitement for the first SpaceX launch. Go go Mr Paypal!

  8. whumpdotcom says:

    I understand the whole project was financed out of profits made from frozen coffee drinks.

  9. lars_larsen says:

    This is what I dont understand.

    You have to get the rocket and payload to the platform somehow right? I assume they use a ship, and not a helicopter for obvious reasons.

    So if they have to haul the rocket out there on a ship, why not just launch it from the ship too? Isnt it cheaper and easier to buy one ship than a ship plus an offshore platform?

    Plus, there is the risk involved in moving the rocket from ship to platform, you might break a $1 billion satellite.

    The russians can launch ICBMs from the backs of trucks. Couldnt we fit a launch platform on a cargo ship?

    • how stable do you think a ship is?? I think the point of using a rig is that it's actually attached to the sea floor. You don't want to fire a gun without a steady hand, now do you?

      • lars_larsen says:

        Some oil rigs float, and even if they're attached to the sea floor, they shake like mad. I mean, even tall skyscrapers shake a few feet back and forth at the top.

        Plus, large cruise ships have developed counterbalances that can prevent the ship from rolling in high seas.

        The only effect pitch or roll of a ship would have would be by altering the initial trajectory, much like a bullet from a gun, once it lifts an inch off the pad, its on its own. It would be just like launching from a stationary pad, that just happened to be tilted a little.

        I'm no rocket scientist, so I dont know for sure, but I feel safe in assuming that you could launch a rocket off by a few degrees from vertical and have it "turn" to vertical after takeoff.

        I suspect the real reason is more along the lines of "The boat would sink from the pressure of the exhaust gasses pressing against it.

        • zonereyrie says:

          Large ships use active stablizing wings. Some ships use weights but that can only reduce motion - the wings can take off 90% or so of motion, but you have to be underway for them to work.

          The semi-submerged platform they used is naturally stable since it is 'floated' on the submerged pontoons which aren't effected by the surface wave action. It can sit in one place and provide an extremely stable launch environment.

          And it wouldn't be like launching from a titled pad - consider momentum. The rocket is a long lever arm - if it is swaying it has to withstand that force and if it launches while swinging it will suddenly be free of the mass of the platform and that can be a lot of force to compensate for when the rocket hasn't built its own forward intertia.

          You could certainly do it - the military does it with missiles all the time. Warships don't wait to stablize. But that's one reason missiles tend to accelerate MUCH harder than a launcher like this - they immediately stablize under trust as the massive boost overcomes any imparted inertia. Launchers are designed to be comparatively very gentle because of the delicate, expensive things they loft. And missiles are MUCH smaller. Note that to launch an SLBM a missle sub *does* stablize before launch.

          The force of a Zenit launch wouldn't sink the ship - equal and opposite, the pressure of the exhaust pushing against the ship is only going to be about the weight of the rocket it was just carrying.

          • lars_larsen says:

            And it wouldn't be like launching from a titled pad - consider momentum. The rocket is a long lever arm - if it is swaying it has to withstand that force and if it launches while swinging it will suddenly be free of the mass of the platform and that can be a lot of force to compensate for when the rocket hasn't built its own forward intertia.

            Yeah, you're right. I didnt think of that. I just assumed if the ship was rolling say, to the righ, that the missile would move right with it as if it were "sliding" to the right, not "tilting". The top would have more energy than the bottom, which would require a lot of force from the rockets attitude correction.

            I'm thinking more about small rockets that take off in a fraction of a second, and not about these high thrust-low velocity monsters.

            The physics center of my brain is broken right now, I didn't sleep at all last night. Excuse me :) I'm normally not so slow.

      • zonereyrie says:

        Actually that's a semi-submerged floating platform - not anchored. It comes and goes with the ship.

        But yes, it is still much more stable than any conventional vessel by design.

    • jlindquist says:

      The floating platform is probably more stable than the cargo ship.

      Having talked to people better-versed in rocket science than I, there are great advantages to launching from the equator, as opposed to places further north like Cape Canaveral or Baikonor, depending on what orbit you want your satellite inserted into.

      • zonereyrie says:

        Inertia - you get more push from the earth, which means you can loft more on the same rocket from the equator than from a pad away from the equator.

        That's also why Ariane's pad is in French Guiana (I've misspelled that I think - my head is pounding today...) - they get a lot better loft than we do from Florida, or the poor Russians get. That's also why Russian just cut a deal with Ariane/ESA/etc and they're going to be building a launch pad for Russian rockets alongside the Ariane 5 pad.

    • quercus says:

      Ships wobble. Platforms don't. It's cheaper (because they've looked at both ways) to have an extra platform than it is to have a ship with the extra kit to anchor itself firmly in place.

      They don't stay on board the launch platform. AIUI, this is one of the big cost-savings compared to setting up land-based launchpads - no need to build for safety, just make it disposable and don't be anywhere near it just in case. They're not launching Thors here, modern launchers (even Ariane) are pretty reliable for getting clear of the pad, even if they fail later. So, you're not comparing "pad + ship" vs. "ship", you're comparing "pad + ship" vs. "two ships".

      Platforms are cheap. The S/H market is big for these things. Cost of buying "the platform" is soon overshadowed by things like the tech kit, the cost of moving it around, and of operating it.

      The Soviets didn't (AFAIK) ever have a "truck launched ICBM". IRBM (intermediate range, not intercontinental), but that's a lot smaller.

      Missiles haven't been satellite launchers for 40 years. Satellites got bigger, warheads got smaller. Even the Titan is an old (i.e. big) missile that can only launch what are now the smaller end of satellite sizes.

      This is a TV satellite - one of the hardest things to launch. They're big and heavy (although this one is pretty small) and they need a geosynchronous orbit. That's a high orbit, which means an extra stage / bigger launcher.

      • lars_larsen says:

        Ships wobble. Platforms don't.

        I think that would be put more accurately "Ships wobble, Platforms wobble too, but they wobble less".

        So, you're not comparing "pad + ship" vs. "ship", you're comparing "pad + ship" vs. "two ships".

        Good point.

        The Soviets didn't (AFAIK) ever have a "truck launched ICBM". IRBM (intermediate range, not intercontinental), but that's a lot smaller.

        Oh yes they do!

        9000 miles range, mounts on top of your "RV" :)

        • quercus says:

          SS27 is 50 tonnes and 20m long. That's "mobile" in much the same sense as the WW2 howitzer "Dora" was mobile. The Russians will do it, in much the same Freudian spirit as Tsar Kholokhov and Tsar Bomba but it's neither a practical option, nor (AFAIK) have any been deployed yet.

    • jkonrath says:

      Do they even use a ship to tow the rocket out there?

      I know that the Shuttle's used boosters are towed in the water after recovery. They aren't put on a ship at all, just dragged as if they were a big, empty boat. But, they don't have anything volatile in them.

      The refilled boosters are shipped to Florida from Utah via rail. But maybe there would be some way to attach a couple of floaties to a rocket and just haul it out to the platform with no big ship to rent?

    • zonereyrie says:

      Safety. Like you mentioned in your other comment - what if there is a fire?

      The platform is unmanned for launch. They dock, transfer for launch, and then the ship with the control center and all the people moves off to a safe distance. The rocket is erected, fueled, and fired remotely.

      Yes, there is some risk in the transfer - but they use a Russian/Ukranian Zenit rocket which was always designed to be moved about readily in a horizontal position and the ship and platform lock together for the transfer so it really isn't a big deal. Not much different from moving the rocket from an assembly building to a pad on ground - just shorter.

  10. primroseport says:

    There's something incredibly awesome about this... it reminds me of the maverick launch pads for secret, earth-saving missions written about in sci-fi novels. Very rock-and-roll.

    Too bad it's all commercial stuff. Satellite television stuff.

  11. belgand says:

    Cool, but I'm waiting until we see confirmation of rockets launched from a secret undersea base.

  12. asan102 says:

    That is so awesome. I want one.

    However, I really don't see the point. They haul that platform out into the middle of the ocean, along with a rocket on a boat, every time they launch? What advantage does this have over just building a launch pad in some secluded spot on land? It seems like the middle of the desert would be every bit as safe, plus you don't have to deal with al the issues water brings to the picture, or the extra costs of hauling all that crap out in the sea.

    I still want one though. But it would be cooler if it was an anchored platform, preferable with a hidden submarine fleet (which each has their own rocket launch-pad) and a private lair.

    • jwz says:

      "Secluded spots on land, on the equator, with no civilization around for miles" are not necessarily easy to come by. Also, they can move this to wherever they want it to be.

      • asan102 says:

        Surely they're not that rare? And why would they need to move it around?

        • jwz says:

          The thing about land is, it all tends to be owned by somebody, and that somebody is going to want to charge you for its use. Also, spots of land on the equator tend to not be terribly safe places to be without lots and lots of machine guns.

          Not having to care where the rocket comes down if something goes wrong -- because there's hundreds of miles of ocean in every direction -- surely simplifies matters.

          I imagine that being able to move it can be helpful depending on what orbit they're trying to put the satellite in.

          • denshi says:

            The lack of guns and rockets falling on inhabited ground will surely decrease the value of their film rights.

    • quercus says:

      Being on the Equator is good. Extra momentum for free.

      Site security is easier with a boat.

      Rockets are impossible to ship overland when assembled. You either need a coastal pad with a ship dock, a final assembly building (on the mosquito-infested equator, and miles from the nearest RS), or just do it all shipboard.

      Once rockets became small enough, commercial launches moving offshore really was a bit of a no-brainer.