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By Michael J. Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (December 17, 1997 - Agence France-Presse)---A radical plan to fire rockets from a huge mobile platform in international waters near the central Pacific nation of Kiribati is on course for its first launching late next year, a spokesman for Boeing Commercial Space Co. said Wednesday.

It is a joint venture partner in Sea Launch Limited which now has 18 firm launches, 13 from Hughes Space and Communications International, Inc. and five from Space Systems Loral.

The first satellite will be the Hughes PanAmSat communications satellite, destined for geo-stationary orbit.

Boeing spokesman Glenn Anderson said in an e-mail the first launch would take place in the fourth quarter of 1998.

The move is something of a blow to Kiribati itself which is trying to develop Kiritimati (Christmas) Island as a spaceport.

In September, Kiribati President Teburoro Tito said a deal was about to be signed with Japan's National Space Development Agency to use Kiritimati as a landing site for their Hope-X space shuttle.

Sea Launch, registered in the Cayman Islands and based in Long Beach, California, will launch their rockets from the Equator and 154 degrees west, 300 kilometers (186 miles) south east of Kiritimati.

Boeing said the combination of benign weather and the "extreme stability" of their submersible platform makes it possible to launch year round.

The location is the best place to utilize Earth's rotational forces.

Most of the satellites it will launch will be going into geo-stationary orbits which ensures that a satellite's speed matches that of the Earth's, meaning the satellite will always be over the same spot. Equatorial launching means a rocket needs little maneuvering to reach the desired orbit.

Other launch sites involve "kick motors" to move them into the right orbit and they can fail, with very expensive consequences.

Few of the land sites at the equator are suitable for launch sites, either because the weather is unstable or the country is politically risky.

Sea Launch will fire 60 meter (198 feet) long Ukrainian built Zenit-3SL rockets and Russian built Block DM-SL third stage rockets, fueled by kerosene and liquid oxygen, carrying up to 5,000 kilograms (11,000 pounds) of payload.

Sea Launch had a 30,000 ton assembly and command ship built in Scotland.

Anderson said it was currently in dry dock in Scotland and will depart shortly for Russia for the installation of launch support equipment.

The launch pad started life as an oil rig and was modified in Norway and is currently being fitted with launching equipment in Russia.

Sea Launch was formed in April and is 40 percent owned by Boeing, 25 percent by RSC-Energia of Moscow, Russia, 20 percent by Kvaerner a.s. of Oslo, Norway and 15 percent by NPO-Yuzhnoye of Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine.

It aims to pick up a share of the estimated 50 billion US dollars in satellite manufacturing and launch activity projected through to the turn of the century. There are around 155 commercial satellites in orbit currently and by 2000 plans call for 1,000.

Arianespace, the European company which launches from Kourou, French Guiana, five degrees north of the Equator, charges around 55 million dollars a launch and has 70 percent of the business. Lockheed Martin uses Atlas rockets from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and charges 50 million dollars a launch.

Sea Launch says it will charge 40 million dollars.

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