NASA GOLD, Feared Lost, Successfully Reaches Orbit

NASA's GOLD instrument is designed to scan the whole of the Earth’s disk every half hour. NASA

Updated | NASA's GOLD instrument has made it into orbit around Earth after fears of disaster as launch officials lost communication with the first stage of the rocket carrying the $55 million instrument shortly after liftoff.

Later Thursday evening, NASA and launch provider Arianespace breathed a sigh of relief when they finally tracked down the rogue payload.

Probe the closest edge of space

Launched by an Ariane 5 rocket and strapped to a commercial satellite, the mini-fridge-sized instrument will probe the closest edge of space, where intense solar radiation meets Earth's chaotic weather.

"Space isn't just the home of astronauts and satellites; it affects our day-to-day lives," said Sarah Jones, GOLD mission scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in a statement.

Conditions at the upper boundary of Earth's atmosphere affect radio waves, GPS signals, and even cell phones. Weather on earth and solar activity in space can interfere with our communication systems, so it is vital to understand this region.

Commercial satellite launch

GOLD will investigate the upper limit of Earth's atmosphere. NASA/Flickr

The GOLD mission marked the first time NASA had sent a scientific mission on the back of a commercial satellite. Arianespace's Ariane 5 rocket took two communication satellites—SES-14 and Al Yah 3—into orbit around Earth. The GOLD instrument hitched a ride on the SES-14. The atmospheric observation device was built by the University of Central Florida with a $55 million grant from NASA.

Arianespace CEO Stephane Israel announced the loss of contact shortly after the launch. After apologizing to the customers who entrusted his company with the precious cargo, he said: "We have had an anomaly on this launch. Indeed, we lost contact with the launcher a few seconds after the ignition of the upper stage...We know that there is no launch with no risk. We know that launch is always difficult. And, tonight, Ariane 5 has had an anomaly."

In spite of the initial loss of contact, Arianespace representatives confirmed the satellites had reached orbit later that evening. A statement said: "[The] lack of telemetry lasted throughout the rest of powered flight. Subsequently, both satellites were confirmed separated, acquired and they are on orbit. SES-14 and Al Yah 3 are communicating with their respective control centers. Both missions are continuing."

GOLD should scan the Earth from a spot about 22,000 miles above Brazil. According to a statement sent to Newsweek, the SES-14 satellite is now operating as expected. Arianespace has set up an enquiry comission in conjunction with the European Space Agency.

This article has been updated to include information provided by Arianespace.