190711 Falcon
UAE's Falcon 1 satellite launch. Image Credit: YouTube screenshot

A ‘major anomaly’ occurred two minutes after lift-off of the UAE’s Falcon Eye 1 satellite during its launch to space on Thursday morning.

The UAE’s fourth reconnaissance satellite, the Falcon Eye 1, successfully blasted off to space at exactly 5.53am UAE time on Thursday at the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana.

Bad weather prompted the space centre and authorities to call off two attempts to launch on July 6 and July 8.

Clear skies and calm winds on Thursday allowed for the launch of Falcon Eye 1 on the Vega Launch vehicle Flight VV15, the second Vega launch this year at the Guiana Space Centre.

However, at 6.14 minutes after the launch, the Mission Control Centre reported it lost telemetry link with the launcher, according to the Flight Director. The telemetry link is the automated communication link between the launcher and the mission control

“Ladies and gentlemen, as you have seen after two minutes after lift-off… a major anomaly occurred resulting in the loss of the mission,” Luce Fabreguettes, Executive Vice President, Missions, Operations and Purchasing, Arianespace, said during the launch.

“On behalf of Arianespace, I wish to express my deepest apologies to our customers for the loss of their payload and telling them how sorry I am.”

“From the first flight data analysis, we will get in the coming hours more precise information. We will communicate to everybody at the soonest. Again, let me present my deepest apologies to my customers.”

Ali Al Shehhi, Falcon Eye Programme Director from the UAE, was present at the Mission Control Room during the launch, along with other senior officials.

The Falcon Eye 1 was supposed to have a dual purpose — to support the needs of UAE Armed Forces, and provide the commercial market with images.

The payload was expected to separate from the launch vehicle 57 minutes after the launchto inject into Sun-synchronous orbit at 611km above the Earth.

The satellite features a very-high-resolution optical capabilities of 70cm resolution across 20km swathe. It also has a ground system for monitoring, receiving and processing the images. It was built by Airbus Defence and Space and Thales Alenia.

How was the Falcon Eye 1 launched to space?

The Falcon Eye 1 was launched to space on a Vega launch vehicle, a lightweight launcher ideally suited for the launch of Sun-synchronous Earth observation satellites. This means satellites orbiting the Earth from pole to pole.

The Vega is a new-generation vehicle for flights with small- to medium-sized satellite payloads and was added into the Arianespace commercial launcher family in 2012.

Prior to the July 11 launch of the Falcon Eye 1, the Vega has had 14 launches, all successful, since being introduced in 2012, according to Arianespace.

What happened during the launch?

The cause for the failure of the mission was not immediately known. Arianespace has yet to retrieve flight data analysis to determine what went wrong.

In a statement released by Arianespace at 9am, three hours after launch, it said: “Approximately two minutes after the Vega launcher’s lift-off, shortly after ignition of the second stage (Zefiro 23), a launcher anomaly occurred – leading to the premature end of the mission. Data analyses are in progress to clarify the reasons for this failure.”

Arianespace further said that an independent inquiry commission will be set up in the coming hours.

During the launch, minutes after lift-off, it appeared on the live video of the launch that the second stage ignition (Zefiro-23) of the launcher initialised but encountered a problem.

This was followed by a deviation on the trajectory of the launcher. Meaning, the rocket did not follow its supposed flight path upward and eventually degraded, falling off course.

“The launcher trajectory is temporarily deviated. Stand-by until more information is available”, was displayed on the screen during the live video of the launch.

The Vega launcher is a three-stage launcher. If all had gone to plan following lift-off, the powered phase of Vega's first three stages would have lasted 6 minutes and 32 seconds.

“After this first phase, the launcher’s third stage will separate from the upper composite, which includes the AVUM upper stage, a payload adapter and the satellite. The lower three stages will fall back into the sea,” according to the flight sequence released by Arianespace earlier.

“The AVUM upper stage will ignite its engine for the first time, operating for about 8 minutes, followed by a ballistic phase lasting approximately 38 minutes and 35 seconds. The AVUM stage will then reignite its engine for about 1 minute and 9 seconds, prior to releasing the Falcon Eye 1 satellite about one minute after the engine is shut down.”

The Falcon Eye 1 satellite was supposed to be released 57 minutes and 09 seconds after lift-off.

Facts Abou the Vega Launcher:

Payload lift capacity: 1,500kg

Reach: Missions to a 700-km circular orbit

Height: 29.9m, 3.025m in diameter

Mass: 137tonnes

Facts About Falcon Eye 1: 

Weight: Approx. 1,197kg

Type: Earth observation satellite; reconnaissance

Orbit: sun-synchronous orbit at 611km above Earth

Capabilities: a High-Resolution Imager, HiRI, an imaging system with a ground resolution of 70cm across a 20km swathe

Operator: Abu Dhabi’s Space Reconnaissance Centre (SRC)

Purpose: provide the needs of the UAE Armed Forces; supply images to the commercial market