A European Vega rocket suffered a "major anomaly" while launching a satellite for the United Arab Emirates late Wednesday (July 10), leading to the loss of the rocket and its payload, according to Arianespace, which built the booster.
The Vega rocket launched the FalconEye1 Earth-observation satellite for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana. Liftoff occurred at 9:53 p.m. EDT (10:53 p.m. local time, or 0153 GMT July 11). The nighttime liftoff was a dazzling sight, but then something went very wrong.
"About 2 minutes after liftoff, around the Zefiro 23 ignition, a major anomaly occurred, resulting in the loss of the mission," said Luce Fabreguettes, Arianespace's Executive Vice President of Missions, Operations and Purchasing, in a televised statement just after the failed launch.
Fabreguettes said Arianespace wanted to "express our deepest apologies for the loss of our payload." She added that officials would look at data from the launch and provide more information as they investigate what happened.
The launch trajectory shown on the broadcast appeared to deviate from the normal track shortly after the Vega rocket's liftoff, Arianespace officials said shortly after launch.
"Data analyses are in progress to clarify the reasons for this failure," European Space Agency officials wrote in a status update on Wednesday morning. "An independent inquiry commission will be set up in the coming hours."
FalconEye1 was to be the first in a planned pair of satellites to be used for everything from crop monitoring to disaster management. It and a twin satellite, FalconEye2, were planned to image the ground in high-resolution optical wavelengths (similar to wavelengths that the human eye can see.)
FalconEye1 had a mass of roughly 2,600 pounds (1,200 kg), which is relatively small; the Hubble Space Telescope, for example, had about 10 times that launch mass. Airbus Defence and Space was the satellite's prime contractor, and Thales Alenia Space the co-prime.
Arianespace's Vega rocket is a light-lift vehicle that stands 98 feet (30 meters) tall and is 10 feet (3 meters) wide at its widest point. It has four stages to launch payloads into orbit — the first three have solid propellants and the final, upper stage is a restartable stage fueled by liquid propellant.
The first Vega launch occurred in 2012 from the Guiana Space Center. Tonight's anomaly is the first failure for the relatively young booster. It was sixth Vega launch in 2019 and the 15th overall since Vega began flying.
Editor's note: This story was updated to include new comments from the European Space Agency on the Vega launch failure of July 10, 2019.
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Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace