Gone in 120 seconds: Arianespace aims for stars, misses, as UAE satellite launch fails

Vega or bust. Bust then

Arianespace's Vega rocket suffered its first failure last night and dumped its United Arab Emirates payload into the Atlantic Ocean.

The 15th launch of the booster had been grounded for days due to high winds at the launch complex in French Guiana. The previous 14, including the maiden flight in 2012, had all gone off without a hitch. This mission, however, went south approximately two minutes after the 01:53 UTC liftoff.

The P80 first stage of the rocket fired as planned, but it all went a bit wrong at the point of separation and ignition of the Zefiro 23 second stage.

Night owls (including us) watching the mission webcast noted the second stage didn't seem to ignite at all and telemetry indicated the rocket's ascent had stopped.

There's no official word yet on what actually went wrong. Arianespace and rocket manufacturer Avio have kicked off an investigation.

The Vega enjoys three solid-fuelled stages, topped off with a liquid-fuelled upper stage to perform final manoeuvres. That upper stage also includes the Avum Avionics Module, which hosts the main components of the avionic subsystem of the launch vehicle.

While solids are generally pretty reliable, although not controllable in quite the same way as their liquid-fuelled brethren, problems at the point of ignition are unusual.

The Zefiro 23 accounts for 7.5m of the 29.9m-tall Vega and weighs in at 26 tonnes with a diameter of 2m. 24 of those tonnes is solid rocket fuel. In nominal flight, the stage fires 107 seconds after liftoff and sends the Vega from an altitude of 44km to 150km in around 80 seconds.

Or, as in this case, sends pieces of the UAE Falcon Eye 1 observation satellite for a closer-than-planned look at the Atlantic Ocean.

The Falcon Eye 1 satellite, built by Airbus and Thales, was supposed to have been placed in a 611km heliosynchronous orbit. The imaging spacecraft would have supported the UAE military in addition to serving the commercial market. It was to be joined by a second satellite, also launched on a Vega, later this year. Now it is imaging with the fishes. ®

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