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Ariane 5 Narrowly Avoids Disaster in First Launch of 2018

By Kendall Russell | January 26, 2018

      An Ariane 5 rocket managed to orbit two communications satellites and a NASA scientific payload on Jan. 25, despite an anomaly that threatened to tarnish Arianespace’s pristine launch record. Late Thursday evening, Arianespace was unable to acquire the rocket’s telemetry after it slipped under the horizon, but Arianespace Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Stephane Israel later confirmed that SES and YahSat have both made contact with their respective satellites.

      Arianespace’s mission was to place the SES 14 and Al Yah 3 satellites, as well as a hosted payload for NASA’s Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk (GOLD) program, into Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO). The rocket lifted off on schedule at approximately 7:20 p.m. local time from Europe’s Guiana Space Center in French Guiana. Shortly after ignition of the upper stage, a tracking station located in Natal, Brazil was unable to acquire the launcher telemetry, resulting in a blackout that lasted the remainder of the powered flight.

      On Jan. 26, Yahsat confirmed that Al Yah 3 was “inserted into an orbit that differed from the flight plan,” but that the satellite is healthy and operating nominally. SES also issued a statement noting that SES 14 will take an additional four weeks to arrive at its final position in Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO).

      “We know that launch is always difficult, and tonight Ariane 5 has had an anomaly, so let’s take time now to better understand the situation of the satellites,” Israel said in an update shorty after the launch.

      According to an Arianespace statement issued this morning, initial investigations attributed the telemetry loss to a trajectory deviation. While the mission was ultimately declared a success, the launch provider has set up an independent inquiry commission together with the European Space Agency (ESA). Upcoming launches at the Guiana Space Center will proceed as scheduled, Arianespace stated.

      Orbital ATK manufactured Al Yah 3, a hybrid electric propulsion Ka-band satellite that will expand Yahsat’s broadband coverage to new markets in Africa and Brazil from 20 degrees west. Built by Airbus Defence and Space, SES 14 will offer coverage over Latin America, the Caribbean, North America and the North Atlantic region from 47.5 degrees west with C- and Ku-band wide beams and Ku-band high throughput spot beams. SES 14 is also carrying a scientific instrument for NASA’s GOLD program, the first time NASA has lofted a payload on a commercial communications satellite. GOLD will monitor the Earth’s ionosphere from GEO using an ultraviolet spectrograph.

      The Ariane 5 rocket has garnered a reputation for its reliability: it has successfully flown 83 consecutive missions, with its last total failure occurring in 2002. Arianespace is now in the process of transitioning to its next medium-heavy lift rocket, Ariane 6, set to launch for the first time in 2020.

      This mission was the first of 14 Arianespace has scheduled for this year. Its next launch will take place in mid-March, orbiting Superbird B3/DSN 1 for Sky Perfect JSAT and the Hylas 4 High Throughput Satellite (HTS) for Avanti.