WASHINGTON — Arianespace will launch the United Arab Emirates’ Falcon Eye 2 reconnaissance satellite on a Soyuz in March instead of waiting for the company’s much smaller Vega rocket to return to flight, Arianespace and Airbus Defence and Space told SpaceNews.
Vega has been grounded since a July failure that destroyed the UAE’s Falcon Eye 1 satellite, resulting in a record $415 million insurance claim. Prior to the failure, Vega was scheduled to launch again in November carrying Falcon Eye 2.
Stéphane Israël, CEO of Arianespace, said Airbus, the satellite’s manufacturer, asked to switch from Vega to Soyuz to avoid further delays getting Falcon Eye 2 into orbit.
“The customer has decided to go to this backup solution, and it’s definitely linked to the capability that was offered by Soyuz to be launched earlier than Vega,” Israël said in a Jan. 7 interview.
Airbus arranged the launch contracts for both satellites as part of a contract it signed with the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces in 2013. Israël said the launch contract included the option to switch from Vega to Soyuz.
Airbus spokesperson Jeremy Close confirmed the switch Jan. 10, saying the transfer to Soyuz was about schedule, not a distrust of Vega.
“Falcon-Eye has been designed with launcher flexibility and is compatible with both Vega and Soyuz rockets,” Close said. “In order to reach orbit as soon as possible and start its mission for the UAE, it has been decided that Falcon Eye-2 would be launched on a Soyuz rocket.”
Falcon Eye 2 is identical to the Falcon Eye 1 satellite, equipped with an optical imaging payload for military and commercial applications. The 1,200-kilogram satellite will launch in March, Close said.
Vega is scheduled to return to flight the same month carrying 42 smallsats for a dedicated rideshare mission called the Small Spacecraft Mission Service, or SSMS. Given Vega’s historical launch rates, sticking with Vega would likely have cost Falcon Eye 2 at least a few months additional wait.
Israël said the Falcon Eye 2 mission will be Arianespace’s first Soyuz launch of the year, and will take place from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana.
Arianespace has 12 Soyuz launches scheduled this year — Falcon Eye 2, the French military’s CSO-2 imaging satellite, and 10 launches for internet megaconstellation startup OneWeb.
The European launch company is targeting a record 22 launches total, comprised of five Ariane 5s, 12 Soyuz, two Vega rockets, two Vega C rockets and the maiden flight of the Ariane 6.