Launch of Ireland’s first satellite runs into problems

Eirsat-1 is unaffected by UK satellite launch failure, but a Vega C rocket which it was scheduled to use has failed to reach its 700km orbit

The failure of the attempt to launch the first satellite into orbit from UK soil has no implications for the deployment of an Irish satellite developed by students and researchers at UCD, scientists said on Tuesday.

However, the launch of Ireland’s first satellite Eirsat-1 has run into problems of its own.

Eirsat-1 was to have been launched later this year on a rocket from French Guiana, on the northeast coast of South America.

But last December, a Vega C rocket of the same type as that planned for use by Eirsat-1, developed problems and failed to reach its 700km orbit and deliver its payload of earth observation satellites, after it launched from French Guiana.


The Vega rocket is an expendable launch system in use by Arianespace and jointly developed by the Italian Space Agency and the European Space Agency.

There is a reason rocket science has its reputation. It is a big deal when something goes wrong

Director of the UCD Centre for Space research Professor Lorraine Hanlon said the team at UCD were extremely disappointed by the setback, which means a significant delay to the launch of the Irish satellite. Three separate inquiries are underway on the part of the Italian Space Agency, Arianespace and the European Space Agency.

Professor Hanlon said the scientific community felt deeply sorry for the Vega C team, its customer Airbus Defence and Space and all who worked on satellites which had been lost.

“There is a reason rocket science has its reputation,” she said of the complexities involved in launching satellites. “It is a big deal when something goes wrong.”

However she said Eirsat 1 was completed and “ready to go” when the team gets a new launch date. It was, she said, “totally separate” from the attempt to launch satellites from Cornwall on Monday night.

When launched, the rocket will carry three experiments on “two cube satellites”, which Prof Hanlon said would be “not much bigger than a litre of milk”. The satellites are due to take up a “low earth orbit” at an altitude of 400 kilometres.

Sean Duke, scientist and science communications officer with Dublin City University, said Ireland’s space sector is thriving and a successful launch of Eirsat 1 would “help to further put Ireland on the space exploration map”. He said the failure of Monday’s launch from Cornwall was not expected to have an impact on the UCD project.

After taking off from Cornwall on Monday night, the British Virgin Orbit plane flew to 35,000ft over the Atlantic Ocean, where it jettisoned the rocket containing nine small satellites towards space.

Organisers of the Start Me Up mission said that the rocket – with a variety of civil and defence applications – failed to orbit.

In a series of tweets, Virgin Orbit said: “We appear to have an anomaly that has prevented us from reaching orbit. We are evaluating the information.”

The plane returned to Spaceport Cornwall safely. The rocket was likely to burn up on re-entry to Earth, but was projected to land over water.

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien is an Irish Times journalist