Estonian-developed ESTCube-2 satellite missing, feared destroyed

Blast off of the Vega rocket carrying ESTCube-2.
Blast off of the Vega rocket carrying ESTCube-2. Source: ArianeSpace

The ESTCube-2 satellite, developed by Estonian students, failed to make contact with its team on the ground after a launch earlier this week, prompting fears it may have been destroyed before entering orbit. One other satellite from a batch of 10 being ferried into space on the same launch vehicle has also disappeared.

The ESTCube-2 team suspects that the launch vehicle did not achieve separation from the capsule contained in the nose of the European Vector of Advanced Generation (Vega) rocket, meaning it did not reach earth orbit, after blasting off from Guiana early morning on Monday of last week.

Two satellites in the event did not separate from the Vega rocket (pictured), and the team thinks that one of them was the ESTCube-2, ERR's Novaator portal reports.

Kristo Allaje, the ESTCube-2 lead system engineer, who had been working on the satellite's development for six years, said: "While the ESTCube-2 team would understandably be quite upset at the thought of losing this satellite, at least it would bring the team initial peace of mind, plus the knowledge of why it has not been possible as of now to make contact with the satellite."

Project manager Hans Terase meanwhile said the team continues to communicate with French commercial launch service provider Arianespace, in order to get a more accurate overview of the situation. "Nonetheless, you have to be patient, as Arianespace is not solely responsible for the various systems used on the rocket, but many other companies from different parts of Europe are also involved."

"Coordination with all of these may take several months," he went on.

"Of course at the same time we are also in contact with Estonian and European space industry representatives, to find the best way to go forward with the project, given the situation," Terase said.

It is still too early to say what exactly will happen next, Terase added, saying "The primary goal of ESTCube-2 – to provide education and practical experience in space technology to more than half a thousand young engineers and scientists – has certainly not failed."

Arianespace itself could not immediately confirm the separation of the last two cube satellites from the rocket, as its official post-launch press release read, but the timing of this press release may have been a factor too.

However, during the first planned overflights over Estonia, the team on the ground proved unable to make contact with ESTCube-2 – which was not in and of itself decisive, as it was possible that, given the delays to the launch window, the satellite had recharged its own batteries while in orbit.

However as the days passed, hopes that either this scenario or other hypotheses proposed by the team over the lack of communications were the case, started to fade.

A few days after launch, North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) updated its public registry of space objects, whose radar data listed only 10 of the 12 newly-orbiting space objects that had been carried on board Vega as detected actually in orbit, after launch. 

While some amateur enthusiasts apparently picked up signals that seemed to be coming from ESTCube-2, it is likely that these had come from another satellite, instead.

Consisting of three cubes measuring just 10cm on each side and with a mass of 4.5kg, ESTCube-2 was intended for use in various experiments while in earth orbit, including corrosion tests, testing Earth observation cameras and the deployment of a plasma brake ahead of reentry.

This was the fourth launch of an Estonian-made satellite.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

Source: ERR Novaator

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