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After a brief silence, the satellite hosting NASA’s new space weather mission responds

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What we have here is a failure to communicate

FRANCE-GUIANA-SPACE-ARIANE-SATELLITE
An Ariane 5 rocket blasts off from the Kourou Space Center carrying four Galileo satellites on December 12th, 2017 in Kourou, French Guiana.
Photo by Jody Amiet / AFP / Getty Images

A brief tracking failure led to fears that the satellite meant to host NASA’s new mission to better understand space weather had been lost, according to SpaceFlightNow. Though the European Ariane 5 rocket carrying the satellite lifted off uneventfully, none of the customers with spacecraft on the rocket could reach their probes for some time.

The satellites are in orbit now and have communicated with their control centers, Arianespace announced, but it looks like the rocket deployed the satellites into bad orbits. “The mission experienced some challenges during the launch stages which resulted in the Al Yah 3 satellite being inserted into an orbit that differed from the flight plan,” Yahsat, a satellite communications company whose Al Yah 3 vehicle was on the rocket, said in a statement. “However, the satellite is healthy and operating nominally.”

The other customer, Luxembourg-based operator SES, also confirmed that its satellite, SES-14, went into a lower orbit than planned but is operating just fine. SES-14 is hosting an instrument called GOLD, which is the first NASA mission to consist of an instrument living on a commercial company’s satellite. Both SES and Yahsat say they will figure out a way for the satellites to course-correct in order to get to their originally planned orbits and do their jobs.

It seems that this flawed deployment was due to an “anomaly” on the launch, according to Arianespace chief executive Stephane Israel, according to SpaceFlightNow. Everything was normal during the flight until a few seconds after the ignition of the second stage. At that point, no one was in contact with the rocket. It turns out that a tracking station in Brazil lost touch with it, and for a while, no one knew its status or the status of the craft aboard it. During that time the rocket went off course and caused the satellites to go into lower orbits than intended.

Though the satellites are fine, the glitch is still worrying since the Ariane 5 rocket is also scheduled to launch NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope in 2019. That telescope represents an $8.8 billion investment from the US government. Plus, it has a very complicated flight plan. The telescope is meant to ride into space folded up and then slowly expand in a lengthy series of steps over two weeks. A problem during launch could jeopardize that process or the entire mission.

An independent commission, helmed by the European Space Agency’s general inspector, will look into the problem. Meanwhile, all scheduled flights at the Guiana Space Center, where the Ariane 5 took off from, will move forward as planned.

Update January 26th, 10:50AM ET: This post has been updated. After a brief silence, the satellites regained contact with their control centers. However, neither of the satellites went into their intended orbits, and an independent commission will investigate what happened.