Black Friday: Arianespace Soyuz Places GPS Satellites in Wrong Orbit

It was something of a Black Friday for the launch industry yesterday. In addition to the SpaceX F9-R “explosion” in Texas, a bizarre story has emerged regarding an Arianespace launch which happened the same day.

The launch, which took place aboard a Russian built commercial Soyuz out of French Guiana and under the Arianespace banner, was intended to place two Galileo GPS satellites into orbit.

Here is the original announcement from Arianespace which was issued after the launch:

“The next pair of Galileo satellites, Galileo 5 and 6, has been successfully delivered into orbit today. This launch marks the start of a new phase in the European satellite navigation programme where the full constellation will be deployed with short intervals between launches.”

As is customary with Arianespace launches, the initial reports of success were followed up by a series of congratulatory speeches from the various dignitaries who attended the event.

As Lee Corso would say, “not so fast my friend.”  According to emerging reports, several hours after the launch, the U.S. Defense Department Space Surveillance Network called Arianespace to notify the company that the two satellites were not placed into the orbit being claimed.

According to the Space News article detailing the story:

“The Soyuz-Fregat was supposed to deliver the two satellites into a circular orbit 23,222 kilometers in altitude, inclined 56 degrees to the equator. As McDowell noted, the rough two-line elements produced by the U.S. surveillance network showed the satellites in an elliptical, not circular, orbit with an apogee of 25,922 kilometers and a perigee of 13,700 kilometers.

The worse news: The inclination was 47 degrees instead of 56.

Climbing into correct position from a too-low perigee requires the use of fuel that would otherwise be used over the satellite’s life for regular maneuvers, but does not by itself mean the loss of the mission.

The inclination error, however, appears too serious to allow much, if any, use of the satellites, according to officials. Correcting the error likely would require more propellant than the satellites carry and, even if they did reach the correct position, they would arrive with propellant levels so low that the effort would be deemed useless.”

There are a number of issues associated with the failure which are worth considering.  In the first place, any failure involving the Soyuz booster is particularly significant due to its role as the sole crew transport vehicle for ISS, not to mention its equally vital assignment as the booster for the Progress re-supply vessel. While neither of those variants are equipped with the Fregat upper stage which appears to be the culprit in the incident, it marks yet another failure of a Russian launch vehicle, and another sign that the overall state of the Russian launch industry is still one of decline, with ominous overtones for ISS.

On another level, even though the booster was Russian, it marks a very rare failure for Arianespace, which has never been shy about trumpeting its dominance over the commercial launch industry, and over the U.S. in particular.  It also raises the embarrassing question of why the company was unaware of the problem, and had to be notified by the United States. Finally, the prospect of expensive and two perfectly functional satellites stranded in a useless orbit may add one more bit of emphasis to the growing tendency to consider solar-electric over conventional chemical propulsion for new spacecraft where a plausible option exists.

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