Launch 2020: Europe’s Ambitions Frustrated by Pandemic, Booster Failure

The Ariane 5 for Flight VA251 departs the Spaceport’s ELA-3 launch zone with its EUTELSAT KONNECT and GSAT-30 satellite passengers. (Credit: Arianespace)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Last year was a tough one for Europe in terms of launches. The COVID-19 pandemic closed the Guiana Space Centre for extended periods. And the most troubled of the three rockets launched from the spaceport had another bad day.

Despite the problems, there were seven launches from French Guiana in 2020, with six successes and one failure. Five of the flights involved European rockets, and two others were Russian Soyuz boosters.

EUROPE
2020 Launch Record: 4-1
2019 Launch Record: 5-1

Launch Vehicles: Ariane 5, Vega
Launch Site: Guiana Space Centre, French Guiana

Europe finished the year with four successful launches and one failure. It was Europe’s lowest number of launch attempts since 2013 when it completed five missions.

Ariane 5 launched three times last year. The booster’s payloads included the following communications payloads:

  • Intelsat’s Galaxy 30 spacecraft, which provides video and television broadcast services for the United States. The Northrop Grumman-built satellite hosts a navigation payload for the Federal Aviation Administration that supports civilian air travel.
  • Eutelsat’s Konnect (BB4A) satellite, which is providing broadband Internet services to Africa. Thales Alenia Space built the all-electric satellite based on its Spacebus Neo platform.
  • JCSAT 17 spacecraft, which is providing high-power video, broadband and mobile communications services over Japan and nearby areas. Lockheed Martin built the satellite for Sky Perfect JSAT Corp.
  • BSat 4b satellite, which is providing direct-to-home 4K and 8K ultra HD broadcast services to Japan. Maxar Technologies built BSat 4b for the Broadcasting Satellite System Corporation.
  • GSAT 30 satellite, which was built and operated by the Indian Space Research Organization.

An Ariane 5 also launched the second Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-2) satellite servicing spacecraft for Space Logistics LLC. Northrop Grumman built the spacecraft, which later docked with the Intelsat 1002 communications satellite in geostationary orbit to extend the spacecraft’s operational life.

An image of Intelsat 10-02 taken by MEV-2’s infrared wide field of view camera at 15m away with Earth in the background. (Credit: SpaceLogistics)

Another Ariane 5 payload was South Korea’s GEO-Kompsat 2B oceanography satellite. The Korean Aerospace Research Institute built the geosynchronous satellite, which is providing data for weather forecasters and scientists.

Two Russian Soyuz rockets successfully launched from the spaceport. On Dec. 2, a Soyuz ST-A rocket launched the Falcon Eye 2 reconnaissance satellite for the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces. On Dec. 29, a Soyuz ST rocket launched the CSO 2 reconnaissance satellite for the French military.

A Soyuz-2 launches the CSO-2 defense satellite on Dec. 29, 2020. (Credit: Arianespace)

European officials were hoping 2020 would be a better year for the Vega booster. The previous year had seen the rocket compile a record of one success and one failure. Investigators concluded the probably cause was a thermal protection design flaw on the second stage’s forward dome area.

Vega made a successful return to flight on Sept. 3 with its first rideshare mission. The booster successfully orbited 53 satellites in the proof of concept mission.

Vega takes off on its 17th flight on Nov. 16, 2020. (Credit: Arianespace webcast)

Two months later, a Vega rocket failed when its AVUM upper stage veered off its planned trajectory. The probable cause of the failure was an inverted control cable in the stage.

Two satellites worth nearly $400 million were destroyed in the accident. The Spanish Earth Observation Satellite-Ingenio (SEOSat-Ingenio) was that nation’s first optical satellite, which was designed to return wide-field imagery of the Earth. Spain’s Centre for the Development of Industrial Technology funded the mission.

The Tool for the Analysis of Radiation from lightning and Sprites (TARANIS) satellite was also lost in the launch accident. The spacecraft, built by the French space agency CNES, was designed to study lightning and other transient events in Earth’s atmosphere.

Vega made a successful return to flight in April 2021. It has a record of 16 successes and two failures.

Tomorrow: A year of transition for Japan