October 8, 2005

Polar Satellite Said to Break Up in Flight

MOSCOW -- A European Space Agency satellite that was to have collected data on polar ice broke up in flight after being launched on a converted ballistic missile, a Russian space agency official said Saturday.

Remnants of the satellite crashed into the ocean, Vyacheslav Davidenko, a spokesman for the Russian Federal Space Agency, told The Associated Press.

The loss of the CryoSat satellite is a major blow to the agency, which had hoped to conduct a three-year mapping of polar sea ice and provide more reliable data for the study of global warming.

The incident also damaged the reputation of the Russian space agency, which is aggressively trying to move into the commercial satellite launch business. German news reports said the satellite cost an estimated $210 million.

The problem appeared to be with the booster rocket that was supposed to lift the CryoSat unit into orbit, Davidenko said.

"The booster unit did not switch on and it resulted in the failure of the satellite to reach orbit," he said. "The remnants of the satellite have fallen into the northern Arctic Ocean."

"According to preliminary information, it was not a failure of the Space Forces, but the malfunction of the apparatus, which failed in bringing the satellite to orbit," Davidenko said.

Davidenko said the head of the Khrunichev production company, which manufactured the booster unit, apologized to ESA officials for the failure.

Engineers lost contact with the Russian rocket and the satellite some two hours after it blasted off from Russia's northern Plesetsk launch facility at about 7:02 p.m. local time, said Franco Bonacina, a spokesman for the European Space Agency.

He said the satellite was supposed to reach orbit at around 8:30 p.m. - about 1 1/2 hours after launch - but by 8:50 p.m., Russian and European flight controllers had had no contact with it.

"We're trying to figure out exactly what happened," he told the AP by telephone from Plesetsk.

Vikor Remichevsky, deputy director of the Federal Space Agency, was quoted by the ITAR-Tass news agency as saying that there had been "a failure of the navigation system."

The satellite was supposed to spend three years surveying polar ice to help scientists gain a new understanding of global warming.

Equipped with radar altimeters, it was to assess the miles-thick ice sheets that cover Greenland and the Antarctic land mass and the comparatively thin sea ice in the polar regions.

Previous satellites have been able to assess only sea ice.


On the Net:

European Space Agency: http://www.esa.int

CryoSat Mission: http://www.esa.int/esaLP/LPcryosat.html