An Ariane 5 rocket has taken off for the first time since the global coronavirus pandemic, launching from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana on the evening of Saturday, August 15.
The rocket from French company ArianeGroup was carrying two telecom satellites, Intelsat’s Galaxy-30 and Broadcasting Satellite System Corporation’s BSAT-4B, as well as Northrop Grumman’s servicing satellite MEV-2.
“This is the first launch following the restart of operational activities at Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, after the suspension of launch campaigns that was imposed on 16 March 2020 due to COVID-19 measures,” the European Space Agency announced in a statement.
There were several modifications made to the Ariane 5 for this mission, including the addition of a new autonomous tracking system called Kassav and a change to the rocket’s nose cone to minimize depressurization when the cone splits in two and is jettisoned. This change was made so that the rocket can be ready for next year’s launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, which has a delicate sunshield that could be damaged by harsh depressurization.
The MEV-2 the rocket carried is a life extension satellite, meaning it is designed to service other satellites and to extend their lifespans. Northrop Grumman recently launched MEV-2’s predecessor, MEV-1, which was able to dock with an Intelsat satellite that was reaching the end of its life and move it into a new orbit, extending its lifespan by five years. The MEV-2 servicing satellite will perform similar operations.
This is important because of the growing problem of space debris. There are thousands of pieces of junk in orbit around our planet, from dead satellites to discarded rocket parts to tiny shards from debris pieces impacting each other. With no way to clear this debris, the space above our atmosphere is steadily getting more and more filled with junk which poses a danger to rockets and other spacecraft. Debris also poses a threat to scientific tools like the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station.
The MEV satellites are a step to reducing this space junk by lessening the number of other satellites that are left in orbit after the end of their lifespan. By extending the time a satellite can be in use, it reduces both the potential junk of a dead satellite and the need to launch another satellite to take its place.