The launch of a Russian Soyuz launcher on 2 December, carrying a dual-use satellite owned by the Emirate Government, was surrounded by the largest security deployment that the Kuru space base has seen since its doors opened over 50 years ago.
Operation Titan's reinforcement, requested by the Emirate authorities from President Emmanuel Macron, was aimed at preventing, as it did, any kind of sabotage or terrorist action from causing the launching into orbit of Falcon Eye 2, its new observation platform for civilian and military use, to fail.
The coded VS24 or Soyuz Flight number 24, has risen to the sky at 02:33 in the morning, Spanish peninsular time. It has placed the Falcon Eye 2 at about 611 kilometres high and perhaps other small satellites as well, but nothing is known about them. Because of the time difference with Spain, in French Guiana - to the north of Brazil - it was 22:33 pm on December 1st.
A high-resolution electro-optical observation platform weighing 1,190 kg, which Israel describes as a spy satellite, yet not considered a threat to its security. Fortunately, in less than an hour the launch was a complete success, as both the government of the Emirates and Arianespace, Europe's leading launch service company, were gambling their money and international prestige.
For Arianespace, suffering a new accident involving the launch of a satellite entrusted to be put into orbit would have been a very serious setback for the credibility of its launch operations. It should be remembered that a fortnight ago the flight of the Vega launcher on November 17 was a failure and destroyed the Spanish platform Ingenio and the French satellite Taranis.
Since the arrival of the satellite on South American soil, the satellite test and integration building and the launch area have been subject to extraordinary security measures around the perimeter, as well as around the Kuru space base and throughout French Guiana.
This has involved an increase in the deployment of the French armed forces, which have provided ground, naval and air cover to the space base in order to prevent sabotage and terrorist attacks, including defence against missiles and attacks by armed drones. The military have been joined by the private surveillance services that guard the space installations on a daily basis.
Arianespace, under instructions from the Emirates' armed forces which own the satellite, has also implemented a strict information blackout on the date and time of take-off, which was not lifted until November 28, when it announced the launch for November 30, which has subsequently been delayed twice for meteorological reasons.
A failure of the Soyuz rocket with Falcon Eye 2 or a malfunction once in orbit would mean the complete disappearance of the Falcon Eye project, designed to obtain images of the whole planet with a resolution of 0.7 metres. Seventeen months ago, on 10 July 2019, a Vega launcher also fired from Kurú should have put Falcon Eye 1, twin of Falcon Eye 2, into orbit. But about three minutes after take-off, when Vega Flight number 15 (VV15) was 80 kilometres high, a serious anomaly was detected that led to the loss of the satellite.
The two satellites were manufactured by the French branches of Airbus Space Systems and Thales Alenia Space, and cost around 800 million euros. They are the result of a government-to-government agreement signed in July 2013 between the Emirates and France, when the Republic was presided over by François Hollande and Prime Minister François Fillon.
Although the initial hypotheses put forward by the Emirati authorities favoured an act of sabotage, the Commission of Inquiry did not reach this conclusion. It ruled in September that the most likely reason for the accident was due to a "sudden and violent thermo-structural failure" in the Zefiro 23 solid fuel engine of the second stage of propulsion.
The loss of its observation platform aroused the doubts of Emirates' prime minister and vice-president Mohamed bin Rashid al-Maktoum about the reliability of the Vega rocket. Together with Defence Minister Mohammed bin Ahmad al-Bawardi, in January this year the Emirates government decided to entrust the Russian Soyuz launcher with its second Falcon Eye, which is also marketed by Arianespace from Guiana, and to relegate the Vega rocket, which was the one under contract.
Veteran Soyuz had only a partial anomaly in flight during his 23 launches from Kurú, which did not result in mission failure. It happened in August 2014, when two satellites of the European Union's Galileo navigation and positioning constellation were transported to its orbit and failed. However, in the end both were able to be moved to their correct position and become operational.
Falcon Eye 2 was initially scheduled to take off on March 5. But failures detected in the final stage of the Soyuz rocket caused it to be delayed. On March 15, the flight campaigns in Kurú were ordered to be suspended, the base was closed and the Russian technicians who operate the rocket left Guiana owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. In April it was scheduled for mid-September, then for mid-October, then for November 30, then for December 1, and finally for December 2.