Satellite smash ups

IT TOOK just 66 seconds for US $7 billion and 10 years of hard work put in by European space scientists, to go up in smoke. Ariane-5 - the pride of the European Space Programme - had to be destroyed along with its payload of four scientific satellites by ground control, after it veered off course on its maiden flight, near the launching site at Kourou, French Guiana, on June 4.

The failure of Ariane-5 is likely to deliver a major blow to Europe's leadership of the commercial satellite industry. Even as scientists and officials associated with the European Space Programme gather to determine the exact causes and implications of the crash, there have been claims that the deluge of flaming debris from the rocket has caused serious damage to the environment.

Designed and developed by Arian- space - a 53-member European consortium - the Araine-5 stood for European, and particularly French, pre-eminence in an industry once dominated by the US. Planning for the flight began in January 1985 and the actual green signal for its launch was given in November 1987.

According to space officials, Ariane-5 was built on a radically new design. Ironically, it was meant to be much more reliable than any of its predecessors and it was expected to lift not only satellites but also astronauts into orbit. The European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Union Agency which was supervising the rocket's test launching, had earlier said that the Ariane-5 would theoretically be much safek than Ariane-4. Its failure rate was supposed to have been one in every 70 launches. Charles Bigot, chairperson of Ariane space, said in a press release, "The failure was a disappointment, but we must bounce back after a disappointment."

Jean Paul Paille, press coordinator of the ESA spoke to Down To Earth about the initial findings of the search team: "A large part of the equipment contained in the bay of the rocket has been recovered and inspected. This has revealed the existence of a malfunction relating to the inertial platforms in the Ariane-5 operating mode. This information will be scrutinised by the inquiry board, which will furnish its results by July-end."

Ariane-5 was intended to launch a flotilla of four small scientific satellites to study the effects of 'solar wind' - a stream of electrically- charged particles which is believed to have a profound effect on the atmosphere and magnetic field of the earth. The absence of a backup for this cluster has resulted in the US $500-million 'cluster mission' being effectively wiped out because unlike the rocket, these satellites cannot be replaced.

The European Space Programme has to wait for some time before it can recover from this expensive and disastrous mission. Arianespace, which had till now managed to retain its dominant position as the world's leading satellite launcher - having grabbed about half the global market share - may hereafter face stiff competition from the Americans, Russians and the Chinese. Meanwhile, French Guiana's Batwel Environmental Group has claimed that the raining debris from Ariane-5 has caused serious damage to the environment. The group has called for the setting up of an international enquiry board to assess the exact nature of damage. According to Maurice Pindard, general secretary of French Guiana's Movement for Decolonisation and Social Emancipation, "Residents of the area, living 24 km away from the launching pad, complained of a stinging sensation in the eyes and hearing and respiratory problems three days after the explosion." These symptoms are being attributed to the formation of a cloud of hydrochloric acid in the sky following the launch. The press office of the ESA declined to comment on this issue.