After months of delays caused by launch vehicle issues and the coronavirus pandemic, a Russian Soyuz rocket and Fregat upper stage took off from South America and delivered the French-built Falcon Eye 2 military observation satellite to an on-target orbit Tuesday night for the United Arab Emirates.
The kerosene-fueled Soyuz ST-A launcher lifted off from the Guiana Space Center on the northeastern coast of South America at 8:33:28 p.m. EST Tuesday (0133:28 GMT Wednesday) with the UAE military’s Falcon Eye 2 reconnaissance satellite, a mission jointly developed by European space industry stalwarts Airbus and Thales Alenia Space.
The Russian-built rocket vaulted off its launch pad in French Guiana with more than 900,000 pounds of thrust and quickly disappeared into clouds over the tropical spaceport.
Liftoff occurred at 10:33 p.m. local time in French Guiana after mission managers scrubbed two previous launch attempts Sunday and Monday due to poor weather and a problem with telemetry reception at a ground tracking station.
The Soyuz jettisoned its four liquid-fueled first stage boosters about two minutes into the flight as the rocket soared north from the Guiana Space Center. Officials confirmed good firings by the Soyuz second stage and third stage in the first nine minutes of the mission.
A Fregat upper stage separated from the Soyuz third stage for a pair of engine burns to first place Falcon Eye 2 into an egg-shaped transfer orbit, then in a circular sun-synchronous polar orbit at a target altitude of 379 miles, or 611 kilometers.
— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) December 2, 2020
The upper stage accomplished those maneuvers as designed, and the Fregat deployed the 2,623-pound (1,190-kilogram) Falcon Eye 2 spacecraft nearly 59 minutes after liftoff while flying in range of a tracking station in Australia.
Arianespace, the French launch services company overseeing Tuesday night’s mission, declared the mission successful.
“I confirm that tonight we have had success with our launcher Soyuz,” said Stéphane Israël, CEO of Arianespace. “Falcon Eye is in the targeted orbit.”
Designed for a 10-year mission, the Falcon Eye 2 satellite will collect high-resolution images for downlink to the armed forces of the United Arab Emirates. With global coverage, the spacecraft gives the UAE an independent source of space-based surveillance data for use in military campaigns, intelligence analysis, and strategic planning.
Ground teams at an Airbus control facility in Toulouse, France, were expected to receive the first signals from Falcon Eye 2 early Friday, commencing a 10-day test period before handing over control of the satellite to engineers in Abu Dhabi, according to Michel Roux, Falcon Eye program director at Airbus.
“We will check that the satellite and the ground system are fully operational, then the system will be officially handed over to the United Arab Emirates, providing them with fully autonomous access to a very high resolution space imagery,” said Philippe Pham, senior vice president of Earth observation, navigation, and science at Airbus. “This will be a capacity that only a handful of countries have in the world.”
The launch of the Falcon Eye 2 satellite comes more than a year after an identical observation craft named Falcon Eye 1 was lost in a rocket failure.
Falcon Eye 1 launched in July 2019 on a European Vega rocket, but the launcher failed during the second stage of its mission. The rocket and Falcon Eye 1 crashed back to Earth before entering orbit.
The Falcon Eye 1 mission was insured for 369 million euros, or $407 million, including the value of the satellite and the launch, according to Space News.
Officials from the UAE government, which owns the billion-dollar Falcon Eye program, decided after last year’s failure to swap the launch of the identical Falcon Eye 2 satellite in the Arianespace launch schedule from a Vega rocket to a Soyuz booster.
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.
After switching to a Soyuz rocket, the Falcon Eye 2 satellite was supposed to take off in March. But technical problems with the Soyuz rocket’s Fregat upper stage and delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic forced officials to reschedule the flight for November.
Weather and technical delays then forced managers to keep the Falcon Eye 2 satellite grounded from its target launch date Saturday until Tuesday night.
It turned out the Vega mission originally assigned to launch Falcon Eye 2 — known as VV17 in Arianespace’s launch manifest — also failed in flight. The failed launch Nov. 16 destroyed a Spanish Earth observation satellite and a French research probe. It was the second failure for a Vega rocket in its last three missions, following a successful return-to-flight launch in September.
Airbus Defense and Space built the Falcon Eye satellites, and Thales Alenia Space provided the high-resolution optical imaging payloads for both spacecraft.
The agreement between the UAE and French industry to build the Falcon Eye satellites 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 two Falcon Eye spacecraft were built on the design of 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.
In remarks during Arianespace’s launch webcast Tuesday night, Roux said the exact imaging capabilities of Falcon Eye 2 is “confidential.”
As part of the agreement, European companies are providing the Falcon Eye satellite, ground systems, and training to Emirati engineers.
“Falcon Eye is not only a satellite,” Pham said. “It’s a full space system, including the ground segment and the imagery processing capabilities. It will deliver top quality Earth observation imagery for our customer.”
The launch Tuesday night was the 24th flight of a Soyuz rocket from the Guiana Space Center since October 2011, and the 12th flight of the venerable Russian launcher this year from French Guiana, Kazakhstan, and Russia.
It was the eight Arianespace mission of 2020. The company has two more launches planned before the end of the year, both using Soyuz rockets.
A Soyuz launcher is scheduled to carry 36 OneWeb broadband satellites into orbit from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia on Dec. 17. The French military’s CSO 2 optical reconnaissance satellite is set for launch Dec. 28 on a Soyuz rocket from the Guiana Space Center.
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