Sea Launch and Launching States

Sea Launch (a mobile maritime launch platform facility) and Launching States are topics to be studied when working on Space Law and Liability. Sea Launch is a multinational spacecraft launch service that used a mobile maritime launch platform (an above-ground facility from which a rocket-powered missile or space vehicle is vertically launched) for equatorial launches of commercial payloads on specialised Zenit-3SL rockets. The private launching company was active from 1995 to 2014; by 2014, it had assembled and launched thirty-two rockets, with an additional three failures and one partial failure.

All commercial payloads have been communications satellites intended for Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) with such customers as EchoStar, DirecTV, or PanAmSat. The first demonstration satellite was launched on March 27, 1999, and the first commercial satellite on October 9, 1999. The Zenit-3SL is an expendable carrier rocket operated by Sea Launch. It is a member of the Zenit family of rockets, and is built by the Yuzhnoye Design Bureau.

Space launch is the earliest part of a flight that reaches outer space. Space launch involves lift-off, when a rocket or other space launch vehicle leaves the ground, floating ship or mid-air aircraft at the start of a flight. Lift-off is of two main types: rocket launch (the current conventional method), and non-rocket spacelaunch (where other forms of propulsion are employed).

Sea Launch

The launcher and its payload are assembled on a purpose-built ship Sea Launch Commander in Long Beach, California. The assembled spacecraft is then positioned on top of the self-propelled platform Ocean Odyssey and moved to the equatorial Pacific Ocean for launch, with the Sea Launch Commander serving as command centre. The sea-based launch system means the rockets can be fired from the optimal position on Earth’s surface, considerably increasing payload capacity and reducing launch costs compared to land-based systems.

Sea Launch Commander is the command ship for Sea Launch. As of 2013, it was registered in Liberia. Its home port is Long Beach, California. Sea Launch Commander was commissioned by Sea Launch, after Sea Launch was established in 1995 as a consortium of four companies from Norway, Russia, Ukraine and the United States of America, managed by Boeing with participation from the other shareholders. In the fall of 1997, the 200-metres long and 32-metres wide ship sailed for Russia, where special equipment for handling rocket components and for commanding and controlling launches was installed and tested. It arrived in Long Beach, California, on July 13, 1998, after a voyage through the Panama Canal. The first rocket launch controlled by Sea Launch Commander was in March 1999.

Ocean Odyssey is a self-propelled semi-submersible mobile spacecraft launch platform converted from a mobile drilling rig in 1997. The vessel was used by Sea Launch for equatorial Pacific Ocean launches. It works in concert with the assembly and control ship Sea Launch Commander and its home port is the Port of Long Beach in the United States of America. The platform was built in 1982 for Ocean Drilling & Exploration Company (ODECO) by Sumitomo Heavy Industries. A few years later, its availability prompted Boeing to establish the Sea Launch consortium. A consortium is an association of two or more individuals, companies, organisations or governments (or any combination of these entities) with the objective of participating in a common activity or pooling their resources for achieving a common goal.

Sea Launch was founded by four companies from four countries, which shared the original ownership of Cayman Islands-registered Sea Launch. The project was helped by Hughes Space and Communications, which in 1995 signed the first contract for ten launches and ten options, valued at one billion American dollars, and Space Systems/Loral, which then signed a five-launch contract. In 1999, shortly after the company was founded, the Sea Launch consortium claimed that their launch-related operating costs would be lower than a land-based equivalent due in part to reduced staff requirements.

Sea Launch has a reciprocal agreement with Arianespace and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries through the Launch Services Alliance (a “back-up” launch service provider alliance between the Arianespace and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries established in 2003), providing assurance in case either company’s system is not able to launch a payload for reasons of reliability, capacity, backlog, or otherwise. This was used for the first time in 2004 when Arianespace’s Ariane 5 had to reschedule a group of launches for reliability reasons.

One of the earliest studies of a sea-based launch site, when studying Sea Launch and Launching States, was pioneered by the US Navy’s Bureau of Ships around 1963. It considered a vessel capable of carrying up to three space launchers. Erected on the edge of the ship’s stern, the rockets would lift off vertically, carrying satellites to a Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO). The main rationale for building a space-launching ship was its ability to be deployed in the equatorial regions of the Earth, where access to the Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) would be more energy efficient and cheaper compared to missions originating from Cape Canaveral.

The launching State

International law contains a set of rules which governs space activities and which is commonly referred to as (International) Space Law. One of the concepts at the heart of space law is known as the “launching State”. In an attempt to find the most obvious connection between a State and “its” space activities, the founders of modern space law identified the launch as a clearly distinguishable, decisive and visible moment: one that cannot be hidden and that is inherent to most space activities, at least those in a classical sense. Whether it is a State itself that launches, an international organisation, a private company or an individual: a space object built on Earth will always have to be launched in one way or another in order to reach outer space.

Article VII of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (entered into force on October 10, 1967) states that “Each State Party to the Treaty that launches or procures the launching of an object into outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and each State Party from whose territory or facility an object is launched, is internationally liable for damage to another State Party to the Treaty or to its natural or juridical persons by such object or its component parts on the Earth, in air space or in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies”.

Article I of the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (entered into force on September 1, 1972) specifies that the term “launching” includes attempted launching, the term “launching State” means a State which launches or procures the launching of a space object, or a State from whose territory or facility a space object is launched. Any space object can thus be “tied” to at least one State, and quite often to more. There are therefore a possible combination of Launching States, and four possibilities for a state to become a launching State as expressed by the 1972 Convention: 1. a State which launches, 2. a State which procures the launching, 3. a State from whose territory a space object is launched, 4. and a State from whose facility a space object is launched. There is of course a need for interpretation here, as the difference between a State which launches or procures the launching is not clear.

3. A State from whose territory a space object is launched: Kourou for France (as it is in French Guyana), Florida for the United States of America… It is pretty easy to understand that if the launch happens in a territory, the state will be considered a launching State.

4. A State from whose facility a space object is launched: the question that arises is the following: are there state launching facilities that are not on state territories? The answer is yes. But considering the fact that those facilities might usually be on a territory, the State from whose territory a space object is launched will be considered a launching State. When Soyuz spacecraft are launched from the Centre Spatial Guyanais (CSG) in South-America, it is the French facility which is used (even though the spacecraft/mission is Russian).

What does it mean to “procure” the launch, exactly? Does it mean “to pay”, to “prompt” or “to cause” – or all together? Over the years, States have developed different interpretations of the conditions and consequences of being a launching State. Technological progress, coupled with commercial concepts, have challenged the application of the concept, too. The very idea, however, remains the same: for each and every object sent into space, there should be at least one State identified which bears international responsibility and liability, regardless of whether the State itself is at the origin of the launch or a natural person or juridical person under its jurisdiction.

A “space object” can be a rocket or its payload (like a satellite). That means that for one and the same rocket launch we could distinguish different launching States, whereby the State that launches the rocket will automatically also launch its payload. Take an hypothetical example. Australia pays for the launch of one of its satellites on-board a U.S. launch vehicle: the U.S. will be the launching State of the rocket and of the satellite, Australia will be the launching State of the satellite (arguably also of the rocket, but here we enter into a more complex legal discussion). Of course, the U.S. has no interest to be held liable for the Australian satellite once in space – it merely provides a launch service. Conversely, Australia has no interest to be held liable should the U.S. rocket fail and cause a damage to a third party. The way out is that both parties of this so-called “joint launch” agree on the internal apportionment of their liability.

To make things even more complex, the launching State does not necessarily have to be a State. It can also be an international organisation – the best example is the European Space Agency. In the 1970s, ESA declared its acceptance of some of the U.N. space treaties. Accordingly, ESA is free to launch space objects but also has to assume responsibility and liability for its activities, the latter jointly and severally with those of its Member States which are parties to the Liability Convention. In case of a damage caused by an ESA space object, ESA and its Member States have an intricate administrative system to deal with the legal consequences and the apportionment of liability (including with those Member States which are not a party to the Liability Convention).

Sea Launch and Launching States

As a conclusion, analysing Sea Launch and Launching States, it is important to understand that each space object has at least one, and often more than one, launching State. Being a launching State means, inter alia, being liable for any damage that the space object may cause on Earth or in space. A State cannot shed its status as a launching State at a later date. That is why States should carefully regulate their national space activities and may discuss with other potential launching States the consequences of joint launches. That is what we can say about Sea Launch and Launching States.