UAE military satellite lost in Vega launch failure

A Vega rocket fired off its launch pad in Kourou, French Guiana, at 9:53:03 p.m. EDT Wednesday (0153:03 GMT Thursday), but fell back to Earth minutes after after suffering an in-flight failure. Credit: Arianespace

A European Vega launcher failed Wednesday night around two minutes after liftoff from French Guiana and fell into the Atlantic Ocean, destroying an Airbus-built surveillance satellite for the United Arab Emirates.

Arianespace, the French launch service provider in charge of Wednesday night’s mission, declared a failure minutes after the 98-foot-tall (30-meter) Vega rocket took off from the Guiana Space Center on the northeastern coast of South America.

Luce Fabreguettes, Arianespace’s executive vice president of missions, operations and purchasing, said the failure occurred around the time of ignition of the Vega rocket’s solid-fueled Zefiro 23 second stage.

“As you have seen, about two minutes after liftoff, around the Z23 (second stage) ignition, a major anomaly occurred, resulting in the loss of the mission,” Fabreguettes said. “On behalf of Arianespace, I wish to express our deepest apologies to our customers for the loss of their payload.”

Officials released no details Wednesday night on what may have gone awry, but Arianespace teams in French Guiana and at Avio — the Vega’s prime contractor in Italy — were analyzing data downlinked from the rocket in the hours after the accident.

“From the first flight data analysis, we will get in the coming hours more precise information, and we will communicate to everybody at the soonest,” Fabreguettes said.

Tracking data from the rocket also suggested something went wrong about the time of the planned ignition of the Vega rocket’s second stage around two minutes after liftoff.

A plot showing the Vega rocket’s planned trajectory (green) and actual flight path (yellow) showed the vehicle flying off course less than three minutes after liftoff. Credit: Arianespace

The range operations director — known by the French acronym DDO — inside the Jupiter control center in French Guiana announced ignition of the second stage, but soon confirmed the launcher was not on its planned trajectory.

The top speed achieved by the rocket, according to telemetry data included in Arianespace’s webcast, was approximately 2.17 kilometers per second, or 4,850 mph at Plus+2 minutes, 13 seconds. The telemetry plot then showed the Vega rocket’s velocity decreasing, and the vehicle deviated below its planned ascent trajectory before falling into the Atlantic Ocean north of the Guiana Space Center.

The Zefiro 23 motor was supposed to fire for 77 seconds, then give way to a Zefiro 9 third stage and a liquid-fueled fourth stage.

It was not immediately clear whether range safety teams on the ground activated the Vega rocket’s destruct system after the launcher began losing altitude.

In a press release later Wednesday night, Arianespace said an anomaly occurred shortly after ignition of the Vega’s second stage. The company said it planned to set up an independent inquiry commission to investigate the failure.

The Vega rocket was attempting to place the Falcon Eye 1 Earth-imaging satellite into orbit for the UAE’s military. Falcon Eye 1 was the first of two identical surveillance satellites built for the UAE by French industry under an agreement negotiated in 2013.

Wednesday night’s failure was the first for a Vega launcher after 14 consecutive successful missions since its debut in February 2012.

The Vega rocket climbs into the night sky over French Guiana with Falcon Eye 1. Credit: Arianespace

The four-stage Vega rocket lifted off from the European-run Guiana Space Center at 9:53:03 p.m. EDT Wednesday (0153:03 GMT Thursday) after a five-day delay caused by unfavorable high-altitude winds over the spaceport.

The Vega rocket aimed to place the 2,638-pound (1,197-kilogram) Falcon Eye 1 spacecraft into a near-circular sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 379 miles (611 kilometers).

The Vega launcher fired off its launch pad with some 680,000 pounds of thrust and turned north to place the Falcon Eye 1 payload into the targeted polar orbit. The mission was expected to last 57 minutes from liftoff through deployment of the Falcon Eye 1 spacecraft.

The light-class Vega rocket is one of three launchers operated by Arianespace from the Guiana Space Center, alongside the medium-lift Russian-made Soyuz launcher and the heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket.

Buoyed by a flawless record going into Wednesday night’s mission, the Vega rocket has found a niche in launching Earth observation satellites for European governments and foreign customers. Before Wednesday night’s failure, the Vega rocket was 14-for-14, having launched satellites to monitor the environment, study Earth’s climate and test new space technologies.

In partnership with ESA, Avio is developing an upgraded Vega rocket named the Vega C for an inaugural launch next year. The Vega C will use more powerful solid-fueled motors, replacing the basic Vega’s P80 first stage with a bigger P120 rocket motor, and introducing the larger Zefiro 40 second stage in place of the Zefiro 23.

The Falcon Eye 1 spacecraft was encapsulated inside the payload fairing of its Vega launcher June 26. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace – Photo Optique Video du CSG – P. Baudon

The liquid-fueled fourth stage on the Vega C is based on the upper stage currently flying on the Vega launcher, but features lighter structural components and larger propellant tanks. The Vega C will be able to loft around 4,850 pounds (2,200 kilograms) of payload mass into a 435-mile-high (700-kilometer) sun-synchronous orbit, nearly 50 percent more capability than the current Vega rocket configuration.

Avio says the Vega C will cost about the same as the current Vega rocket — around $35 million to $40 million, according to U.S. government estimates — reflecting a reduction on a cost-per-kilogram basis. The development of the Vega C is funded in a cost-sharing arrangement between ESA and Avio.

Arianespace has signed contracts with customers to fill at least nine more Vega and Vega C launches after Wednesday’s failed mission, according to previous statements by the company. Some of the satellites booked to fly on future Vega rockets will launch on multi-payload rideshare missions, and officials have not announced firm payload assignments for many of the flights.

In addition to the firm backlog, ESA and European member states have committed more unspecified government missions to launch on the Vega C in the early 2020s.

One of the Vega launches in Arianespace’s backlog is slated to deliver the UAE’s Falcon Eye 2 satellite to orbit, an identical spacecraft to the payload lost Wednesday night.

Airbus Defense and Space built the Falcon Eye satellites, and Thales Alenia Space provided the high-resolution optical imaging payloads for both spacecraft under a contract valued at roughly 800 million euros, or about $1.1 billion at 2013 exchange rates.

The agreement between the UAE and French industry was brokered with the backing of the French government, but a security review by the U.S. government delayed the final signature of the contract between the UAE, Airbus and Thales until 2014. The satellites use some U.S.-made components, prompting the Obama administration to put a temporary hold on the deal until officials ultimately approved the export of the U.S. parts for use by the UAE military.

The Falcon Eye satellites are based on the French Pleiades Earth-imaging satellites launched in 2011 and 2012, and reportedly have a resolution of about 2.3 feet, or 70 centimeters, in their highest-resolution imaging mode.

The status of the next Vega flight, which was scheduled for Sept. 10 with 42 small satellites on-board, is uncertain after Wednesday night’s launch failure.

Arianespace’s next mission is an Ariane 5 launch from French Guiana scheduled for July 24. The Ariane 5 is set to launch with the Intelsat 39 communications satellite and the EDRS-C spacecraft, the first dedicated satellite for the European Data Relay System developed by Airbus and the European Space Agency.

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.