NASA breathes sigh of relief after expensive payload goes radio silent

26 Jan 2018

Ariane 5 moves into position at the Spaceport’s ELA-3 launch zone. Image: Arianespace

A rocket launched by a commercial space company with an expensive NASA payload on board appeared doomed, but it managed to pull off a successful launch.

For every successful space launch that sends crew or much-needed supplies into space, there is an unsuccessful one – such as what happened to SpaceX toward the end of last year.

It seemed another potential major mishap was on the cards following the launch of a rocket from the European Space Agency’s facility in French Guiana by the private space company Arianespace.

The French company’s Ariane 5 rocket took off at 10.20pm UTC with a payload of two commercial satellites – SES-14 and Al Yah 3 – and NASA’s latest instrument, the Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk (GOLD) designed to examine and monitor the border between Earth and space.

The event was something of a milestone for the US space agency as it was the first instrument to be placed on board a commercial communications satellite (the SES-14) due to it being no bigger than a microwave.

But about nine minutes after the launch it appeared as if the payload was doomed. Arianespace lost contact with the rocket’s upper stage, and NASA and the other commercial partners involved were left waiting for some very anxious hours.

However, a few hours after launch, Arianespace issued a statement claiming that the rocket successfully delivered the payload into orbit.

Communications problem

“A few seconds after ignition of the upper stage, the second tracking station located in Natal, Brazil, did not acquire the launcher telemetry. This lack of telemetry lasted throughout the rest of powered flight,” the statement read.

“Subsequently, both satellites were confirmed separated, acquired and they are on orbit. SES-14 and Al Yah 3 are communicating with their respective control centres. Both missions are continuing.”

While not the best start for NASA’s foray into commercial hosting of its equipment, one of the agency’s chief scientists, Elsayed Talaat, said prior to the launch that it was a good solution.

“Being on hosted commercial satellites gives us, NASA, a new cost-effective tool in our toolbox for doing science,” he said.

“There are still many times when we would have to build the satellite and do the launch ourselves, but the more tools we have to get into space, the better for our overall science programme.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic