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Satellite destroyed as rocket explodes on liftoff

/ Source: The Associated Press

A rocket carrying a commercial communications satellite exploded Tuesday during launch from an oceangoing platform in the equatorial Pacific.

“There was an explosion as we were lifting off,” said Paula Korn, a spokeswoman for Sea Launch Co., which was launching The Boeing Co.-built NSS-8 satellite for Netherlands-based SES New Skies.

The self-propelled converted oil platform used for the launch had been cleared of all personnel. The launches are conducted remotely by a mission control team aboard a ship several miles away.

Korn said she did not know the condition of the platform. SES New Skies said in a statement that the satellite was a total loss.

The blast occurred at the scheduled 3:22 p.m. PST launch time. It was not known if the Zenit-3SL rocket actually lifted off the platform.

A webcast of the launch was halted and replaced with the message: “Anomaly on NSS-8 mission. Broadcast concluded.”

A failure review oversight board will be formed to determine what happened, Korn said from Sea Launch’s home port in Long Beach.

NSS-8, which was insured, was to have been used for audio, video, data and Internet services for countries in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and Asia, Sea Launch said. SES New Skies has five other satellites in orbit and another under construction.

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NSS-8 was intended to replace the company’s existing NSS-703 satellite, which will now have to remain in its orbital position to continue serving existing customers until at least 2009, the company said.

A satellite now under construction, NSS-9, will be launched in 2009, allowing another satellite, NSS-5, to move into position to replace the NSS-703, the company said.

“The NSS-8 launch failure is thus not expected to have an impact on existing customers or revenues,” SES New Skies said.

The companies did not disclose the cost of the rocket or its payload.

Sea Launch is owned by Boeing, RSC-Energia of Moscow, Kvaerner ASA of Oslo, Norway, and SDO Yuzhnoye/PO Yuzhmash of Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine.

The company sends its vessels to the equator for each mission because the physics of Earth’s rotation allows rockets to carry heavier payloads than they could from other locations.

The system has had 23 previous launches since its first in 1999.

During the third launch, on March 12, 2000, the rocket failed to gain enough speed to reach orbit and a communications satellite was lost. During a June 28, 2004, launch, an upper-stage engine shut down prematurely and left the payload in a lower-than-planned orbit, but the satellite was later raised to the right position.

The Zenit-3SL has three stages, all fueled by kerosene and liquid oxygen. It is about 200 feet tall and 14 feet in diameter at its widest.