Probe starts after UAE satellite lost in failed Vega launch

(Reuters) - An investigation is under way after a European Vega rocket failed after take-off, destroying a military observation satellite as it was about to be placed in orbit for the United Arab Emirates, European space authorities said on Thursday.

The Italian-built launcher blasted off from a space port in French Guiana at 10:53 pm local time on Wednesday (0153 GMT on Thursday), carrying the FalconEye1 earth observation satellite with a reported value of several hundred million dollars.

Some two minutes into the flight, controllers began reporting signs that something had gone wrong shortly after ignition of the second stage, according to a launch webcast.

“The trajectory is very degraded,” a mission controller said, while an official commentator reported a loss of telemetry data from the rocket, operated by Europe’s Arianespace.

Despite efforts to reconfigure the launcher from the ground, Arianespace later confirmed it had suffered a “major anomaly” and apologised to the UAE for the loss of its payload.

“The European Space Agency and Arianespace immediately decided to appoint an independent inquiry commission,” ESA and Arianespace said in a joint statement.

It was the first such failure of a Vega rocket, which is sponsored by the European Space Agency for missions in low earth orbit and has carried out 14 previous missions.

The launch had twice been postponed due to bad weather.

Further Vega launches have been suspended pending the investigation, but preparations for the next launch of the larger Ariane 5 rocket are going ahead, Arianespace said.

FalconEeye1 was the first of two military reconnaissance satellites due to be launched for the UAE armed forces this year under a co-operation agreement between the UAE and France.

UAE officials were not available for comment.

Thinly traded shares in Italian aerospace company Avio Aero, which built the Vega launcher and the propulsion motor used in the second ignition stage, fell nearly 15%.

Airbus and Thales Alenia Space, a joint venture between France’s Thales and Italy’s Leonardo, built the FalconEye1 satellite, whose value has not officially been disclosed.

Vega launches are marketed by Arianespace, a pan-European launch firm controlled by ArianeGroup, which is a joint venture between Airbus and French engine maker Safran.

Reporting by Silvia Recchimuzzi in Gdynia, Tim Hepher in Paris. Editing by Jane Merriman and Alexandra Hudson