Ariane 5 Lifts Off, Misses Ideal Orbit

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Science  07 Nov 1997:
Vol. 278, Issue 5340, pp. 1019c-1021c
DOI: 10.1126/science.278.5340.1019c

Europe's new heavy-lift rocket, Ariane 5, was launched without a hitch on 30 October from Kourou, French Guiana. The success ends 17 months of anxiety following the catastrophic failure of the first test flight, which destroyed the $500 million Cluster mission to map Earth's magnetosphere. This time around, space officials hedged their bets by loading Ariane 5 with two dummy satellites and a low-cost scientific payload.

Disaster struck the previous test flight when software controlling the rocket's inertial guidance system choked on the large data flow; the rocket veered off course and self-destructed. Last week, the countdown was interrupted 48 seconds before lift-off because of an electrical problem with the payload. “We had a few moments of tension,” Frederik Engström, the European Space Agency's (ESA's) launch director, said at a press conference. “It was a minor glitch, and after that everything went very smoothly.”

But not entirely. The first-stage engine shut down too soon after the launcher rolled and reported falsely that it was out of fuel. The premature shutdown put Ariane into orbit at 524 kilometers above Earth, 57 km lower than it was supposed to be. “Although the orbit is slightly different than planned, it will be able to carry out its mission,” says Daniel Mugnier, launch director at CNES, France's space agency. The TEAMSAT satellite, built by ESA's technology center in the Netherlands, contains several experiments, including instruments to measure atomic oxygen at high altitude. It will also try to receive global positioning signals from GPS satellites in lower orbits, which might provide an additional way to locate satellites in space.

The next test launch, planned for March, will carry more ambitious cargo: the Atmospheric Reentry Demonstrator, a model of a vehicle to return from a future space station, and possibly a 3-ton communications satellite from Intelsat. The first full-scale payload, its weight not yet finalized, is expected to fly next summer.

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