Arianespace Scrutinizing Quality Control After Latest Launch Scrub

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PARIS — Europe’s Arianespace launch consortium is creating a board of inquiry and a separate, outside committee to review the company’s quality control following three postponements of the first Ariane 5 launch in 2010 and a similar series of delays in last December’s launch of France’s Helios 2B reconnaissance satellite, Arianespace Chief Executive Jean-Yves Le Gall said April 12.

The latest launch cancellation occurred April 9 less than a minute before the scheduled liftoff, when the helium tank that keeps the Ariane 5 rocket’s main cryogenic stage pressurized showed a pressure level that was outside of permissible bounds.

A similar problem occurred in December and was determined to have been caused by a small leak in the helium-pressurization system. Helium is used to maintain pressure in the Ariane 5 rocket’s main stage tanks, which are filled with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. The Helios 2B satellite was launched successfully Dec. 18, nine days after the problem was discovered.

Arianespace is creating a special task force to determine the origins of the helium-pressure issue and to deliver its initial conclusions April 16. A separate quality-control audit, likely including representatives from the European and French space agencies, will also be created to determine if any of Arianespace’s procedures need review in light of the series of launch postponements.

“In light of what happened with the Helios-2B delays and now these recent postponements I would like to have an outside team look at our practices to see where we can improve,” Le Gall said in an interview. “There have been a few too many issues of late. What I am expecting is at least a preliminary set of conclusions from the quality audit before we proceed with the launch. In any event I believe we will return to flight before the end of the month.”

Le Gall said a first launch before May would still leave Arianespace time to conduct its planned seven Ariane 5 launches in 2010. The company also is preparing for the inaugural launch — now expected not before late September — of the European version of Russia’s Soyuz rocket from Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport in French Guiana.

The helium-pressure anomaly discovered April 9 forced a third postponement of the launch of the Astra 3B commercial direct-broadcast television satellite, owned by SES of Luxembourg; and the COMSATBw-2 military telecommunications satellite to be operated by the German Defense Ministry in partnership with a commercial consortium made up of Astrium Services and ND Satcom, both of Europe.