A NASA Earth-observation instrument seems to have successfully reached orbit yesterday, despite initial fears that the launch had failed following a radio blackout.
The Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk (GOLD) instrument was launched aboard a European Ariane 5 rocket from the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana yesterday at 5.20pm EDT. It is not a standalone spacecraft but instead part of the commercial SES 14 satellite. Another commercial satellite, Al Yah 3, was also launched.
Shortly after the launch, however, controllers on the ground were unable to contact the two satellites. This led to concerns that something had gone wrong – a rare anomaly for the Ariane 5, which is normally highly dependable.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I come to give you some information because we have had an anomaly on this launch,” Arianespace chief executive Stephane Israel said, reported Spaceflight Now. “Indeed, we lost contact with the launcher a few seconds after ignition of the upper stage.”
Later, however, news came in that the spacecraft had actually reached orbit, after communication was re-established. The plan was to put the spacecraft in supersynchronous orbits, sweeping elliptical paths that will get them into geostationary orbit, 35,000 kilometers (22,000 miles) above Earth.
A replay of yesterday's launch
This looks like it will still happen, although a bit later than intended. In a statement, SES said they would reach their intended orbit about four weeks later than planned, which might mean August rather than July.
"SES confirms that the spacecraft is in good health, all subsystems on board are nominal, and the satellite is expected to meet the designed lifetime," they said.
Abu Dhabi company Yahsat, who operates the Al Yah 3 satellite, also confirmed their satellite was on its way to its intended orbit.
Once everything does get back on track, then we can expect some pretty exciting science from GOLD. It’s going to be studying how the solar wind interacts with Earth’s upper atmosphere, the ionosphere, described by NASA as a “little-understood region”.
From geostationary orbit GOLD will have a continual view of Earth and its outer atmosphere, getting a complete view of the ionosphere every half an hour. Later in 2018, a companion spacecraft called ICON will be launched into a lower orbit of 565 kilometers (350 miles), getting complimentary data close-up.
Together, the missions will help us see how hurricanes and geomagnetic storms caused by the Sun affect the upper atmosphere. Fingers crossed the rest of the endeavor goes a bit more smoothly.