The failure of Ariane 5 has dealt a severe blow to the European satellite launch program. European Space Chiefs are now trying to come up with answers to the baffling fiasco.
The Ariane 5 rocket crashed, bringing the European satellite launch industry down with it
The European space industry is still mystified about what caused the new Ariane 5-ESCA rocket to fail this week, less than three minutes after lift-off.
The new heavy-payload version of the rocket strayed off course just 96 seconds into its maiden flight on Wednesday and had to be blown up, ditching its $600 million payload of satellites into the Atlantic Ocean 800 kilometres off the coast of French Guiana.
Engineers and officials from the European Space Agency say the problem occurred in the cooling circuit of one of the rocket's main engines. A change in engine speed around 180 seconds after take-off caused the launcher to "demonstrate erratic behaviour".
Wednesday's explosion was the fourth failure of an Ariane 5 in fourteen missions. It was carrying a 10-tonne cargo, heavier than any previous version. On board were the Hot Bird 7 Eutelsat television broadcast satellite and Stentor, a telecommunications satellite developed by the French space agency at a cost of over $385 million.
Arianespace, the company that designed the rocket, has announced the establishment of an independent inquiry board to investigate the failure and try to ensure future launches are not affected. Arianespace chief executive Jean-Yves Le Gall said the inquiry would begin early next week.
"We will have to clearly explain what happened and if it will have consequences on the Ariane 5 launcher in its basic version," Le Gall told reporters. "Second, it will tell us when we can resume Ariane 5 flights."
Rosetta mission in danger
Experts say the Ariane 5 could be out of action for several months, casting doubt over the mission of the comet-chasing Rosetta probe, due to blast off on January 12.
Rosetta, estimated to have cost more than $1 billion, is to make an eight-year journey to meet the comet Wirtanen, which it will study for nearly two years. The timing of Rosetta's launch is critical because of its complex trajectory around the planet Mars.
Setback for Europe
The Ariane 5 failure comes as a huge blow to the European industry at a time when the satellite launch market is in a depression. Demand has been affected by a slowdown in the world telecommunications industry, with fewer commercial satellites being ordered than in previous years. Overproduction of rockets has also caused prices to fall thirty percent lower than they were a decade ago.
In addition, several competitors to Ariane 5 have emerged in recent months. Boeing's Delta 4 and Lockheed Martin's Atlas 5 have both been well-received since their introduction. Arianespace's dominant position in the commercial market now looks to be seriously threatened, with Ariane 5's failure expected to cause customers to look even more favourably on its rivals.
Some industry analysts have predicted that the market for satellite launchers could experience an up-turn in the second part of the decade, when satellites will have to be replaced. They also say higher demand for broadband internet services could translate to a need for more satellite launchers.
But the fallout from Wednesday's failure, already being felt throughout the satellite launch industry, will be lasting. Insurance companies are saying they'll be forced to increase premiums. Ariane 5 crashed just ten days after the failure of the Astra 1K telecoms satellite launch, capping an already bad year for commercial insurers. Consultants say the situation could force some insurers to quit the space industry altogether.
The next Arianespace mission, Flight 156, which will use Ariane 5's predecessor, Ariane 4 to orbit the NSS-6 satellite, has been set for the evening of Tuesday, December 17. The Arianespace consortium has stopped production of the Ariane 4 and the last rocket has been booked for launch in February.