LOST SEA LAUNCH ROCKET SPLASHED DOWN NEAR PITCAIRN

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By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (March 16, 2000 – Agence France-Presse)---A wayward commercial rocket which disappeared Monday after being fired off a platform in the Central Pacific came down near Britain's lonely Pitcairn Island, which is settled by descendants of a naval mutiny, the island's Auckland based Commissioner Leon Salt told AFP Thursday.

The rocket owners, Sea Launch Limited Partnership, 40 percent owned by the Boeing Commercial Space Company, only Thursday advised Pitcairn that is had been in the firing line.

The location of the various pieces suggests the rocket flew over most of French Polynesia despite earlier assurances that it would not fly over populated areas.

Salt said Sea Launch, and the Apia based South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), had advised them that the rocket had come down near Ducie Island, an unpopulated atoll 470 kilometers (290 miles) east of Pitcairn and part of the British territory.

Sea Launch, Monday fired its third Russian-Ukrainian three stage Zenit-3SL rocket from a Norwegian built oil rig moored on the Equator 370 kilometers (230 miles) southeast of Kiribati's Kiritimati (Christmas) Atoll.

The rocket was lifting a Hughes Space and Communications HS-601 satellite weighing 2722 kilograms (6,050-pound) for London's ICO Global Communications Ltd. into a medium earth orbit.

Sea Launch communications director Paula Korn Wednesday said that the rocket had been fired from the platform and had taken a 45 degree trajectory.

"We believe it went down about 2,000 miles (3,218 kilometers) (southeast) from the launch platform," she said.

It was at an altitude of around 160 kilometers (100 miles) when contact was lost.

Asked if they had been in contact with French authorities, she could not say, other than to stress the company believed it had been in a "no populated area."

Daily news of French Pacific territories issued by the South Pacific Community (SPC) quoted French Polynesia High Commission spokesman Patrick Martinez saying the first stage had been found also, northwest of the Marquesas group in French Polynesia.

"The second stage of the rocket, and probably the British satellite it was carrying, fell between Pitcairn island and (uninhabited) Ducie atoll, some 700 kilometers southwest of the Gambier group of islands."

French Polynesia controls the upper air space over Pitcairn.

Around 50 people live on 450 hectare (1,112 acre) Pitcairn Island, most of them descendants of those who in 1789 mutinied against Captain William Bligh on board Bounty. The ship had visited Tahiti where Christian and others fell in love with local women. That and the fact that Bligh ran a tight ship sparked the mutiny, which saw eight mutineers, six Polynesian men, 12 Polynesian women and a small girl arrive on Pitcairn in 1790. They remained undiscovered for 18 years.

Salt said a German cruise liner, World Discovery, was due to visit Ducie next Tuesday.

''We will ask them to look out for pieces of the rocket,'' he said.

Ducie was ''a pretty desolate place" with only one form of vegetation and millions of birds.

Last June a British yacht visiting the atoll was surprised to find an unmarked military Sea Hawk helicopter on the atoll.

Although it was photographed there has been no explanation of whose helicopter it was or what it was doing there.

The SPREP map, based on information from Sea Launch, indicated that the rocket would have flown over Ducie anyway.

ICO Global Communications Ltd. is planning seven other similar launches from the Sea Launch floating platform.

Michael Field New Zealand/South Pacific Correspondent Agence France-Presse E-mail: afp.nz@clear.net.nz  Phone: (64 21) 688438 Fax: (64 21) 694035 Website: http://www.afp.com/english/ 

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