Overflight Dispute Delays Launch of Metop-B Satellite

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UPDATED 1:11 a.m. EDT

PARIS — The scheduled May 23 launch of Europe’s Metop-B polar-orbiting meteorological satellite has been indefinitely postponed following a dispute between Russia and Kazakhstan over rocket debris on Kazakh territory, according to European government and industry officials.

Metop-B, built by Astrium Satellites of France, was shipped March 5 to Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in preparation for a launch aboard Russia’s Soyuz 2.1a rocket.

The French-Russian Starsem company, in which Europe’s Arianespace launch consortium is a major shareholder, is managing the launch. Starsem on April 27 issued a statement saying it had been informed by Russia’s Roscosmos space agency that “additional measures are needed to ensure the availability of drop zones for elements of the Soyuz rocket,” and that the Metop-B launch had been “pushed back by several weeks.” No new launch date was announced.

The 4,100-kilogram Metop-B is designed to operate in a sun-synchronous polar low Earth orbit at around 817 kilometers in altitude. To reach that destination, the Soyuz vehicle takes a northerly route from the Baikonur spaceport. On this trajectory, it is likely to drop its lower stage on Kazakh soil.

This has happened many times before, but in recent years Kazakh officials have ordered a stop to the practice, arguing that in addition to posing a hazard as they fall, the rocket stages contain toxic fuel that could present a risk to the Kazakh environment or to villagers near the drop zone.

Metop-B is the second of three nearly identical Metop satellites that together will provide uninterrupted weather data to Europe’s Eumetsat meteorological satellite organization well into the next decade.

Metop-A was launched in 2006 and is healthy in orbit. The Metop-C satellite is scheduled for launch in 2016.