UCF-led NASA mission safe after Ariane 5 rocket scare

'They are on orbit,' Arianespace chief exec says of SES-14, Al Yah 3 satellites

ORLANDO, Fla. – A European rocket carrying two commercial payloads and a NASA mission led by the University of Central Florida experienced an anomaly Thursday after launching, but thankfully the NASA instrument and satellite payloads are OK, Arianespace chief executive Stéphane Israël said.

The Ariane 5 rocket lifted off from Kourou, French Guiana, at 7:20 p.m., carrying the communications satellites SES-14 and Al Yah 3, along with NASA’s $53 million GOLD instrument, which is designed to study the Earth’s upper atmosphere and space weather.

GOLD, which stands for Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk, is a NASA mission led by UCF. Three UCF faculty members serve on the GOLD science team.

The mini-fridge size GOLD instrument flies in geostationary orbit on SES-14.

About 10 minutes after launch, updates from the European company stopped. An hour after liftoff, Israël confirmed that the rocket had suffered an anomaly after the payload separated from the rocket’s second stage and contact was lost.

“We have had an anomaly,” Israël said. “No customers have contact with their satellites.”

Arianespace officials later determined that the rocket's satellite payloads successfully separated and were in orbit. After 8:30 p.m., the company released the following statement, explaining the situation:

"A few seconds after ignition of the upper stage, the second tracking station located in Natal, Brazil, did not acquire the launcher telemetry. This lack of telemetry lasted throughout the rest of powered flight. Subsequently, both satellites were confirmed separated, acquired and they are on orbit. SES-14 and Al Yah 3 are communicating with their respective control centers. Both missions are continuing."

NASA officials said they don’t expect any effects on the quality of GOLD's observations and data.

“Originally, science operations were expected to start in mid-October. Our partners (SES) are working to maintain that timeline as close as possible,” according to NASA.

SES said in a statement Friday that the spacecraft is in good health and will now reach its planned geostationary orbit four weeks later than originally planned.

Ariane 5 has rarely failed in the past, as the workhorse of the European space industry.

The rocket has a major NASA mission on its manifest for next year, the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope. The telescope is an upgrade and eventual replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope.