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Flight path

To deliver MetOp satellites into their polar orbit, the Soyuz rockets would have to head north from Baikonur.


A fully assembled MetOp-B satellite undergoes preparations for delivery to the launch site at the manufacturer processing facility. Credit: ESA


The MetOp-B satellite mounted on the Fregat upper stage during its pre-launch processing at Baikonur's Site 112. Credit: ESA


The rollout of the Soyuz-2.1a rocket to launch pad on Sept. 17, 2012. Credit: EUMETSAT


Soyuz-2.1a with MetOp-B on the launch pad in September 2012. Credit: TsENKI


Soyuz-2.1a with MetOp-B lifts off on Sept. 17, 2012. Credit: TsENKI

Launch of the MetOp satellite


The MetOp satellite in deployed position

Russia delivered a sophisticated European meteorological satellite from its launch site in Kazakhstan.

A Soyuz-2.1a rocket carrying the 4,085-kilogram MetOp-B meteorological satellite lifted off from Baikonur's Site 31 on Sept. 17, 2012, at 20:28:40 Moscow Summer Time. European Space Agency, ESA, did confirm normal separation of the payload section some eight minutes after the launch.

The orbital insertion lasted one hour, nine minutes, concluding with the release of MetOp-B into a Sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude between 800 and 850 kilometers.

The flawless mission followed the successful delivery of a similar satellite -- MetOp-A -- by a Russian Soyuz-2 rocket in 2006. The latest spacecraft was intended to eventually replace its predecessor, however both satellites can work in parallel, as long as the original satellite remains operational.

It was the first flight for the Soyuz-2 series of rockets in 2012 and its 19th mission since the beginning of the program in 2004.

Anomalies during the launch

Two days after the MetOp-B launch, industry sources hinted online that the Soyuz-2 launcher had experienced some anomalies during the mission, which had fortunately been compensated for by the performance of the Fregat upper stage. According to unofficial reports, the engines on the second and the third stage of the launch vehicle were cut off a couple of seconds earlier than planned, possibly, as a result of a command from the Emergency Defense Mechanism abbreviated in Russian as SAZ. SAZ monitors the performance of the propulsion system and can trigger its shutdown, if certain parameters indicate a possible emergency onboard, such as an explosion.

One reliable source reported on the forum of the Novosti Kosmonavtiki magazine that the Soyuz-2 rocket in the MetOp-B mission carried more propellant than usual to enable sideway maneuver aimed to drop its empty stages into designated areas. However, these changes resulted in a higher then expected altitude and higher velocity, which, in turn, led to a premature command to separate Block A (Stage II) and Block I (Stage III). It is still unclear at what point of the mission, the Fregat upper stage was able to make up the difference if any, resulting from the Soyuz-2 lower performance. It is known that telemetry data indicated that Fregat had not extended its first burn -- it lasted 450.6 seconds instead of planned 450.7 seconds.

MetOp satellite

The MetOp satellites became Europe’s first operational meteorological satellites operating in polar orbit. They represented the space segment of the EUMETSAT Polar System, EPS, network. Its purpose was to deliver data for numerical weather prediction, NWP, – the basis of sophisticated weather forecasting – as well as climate and environmental monitoring. Flying at an altitude of 817 km, each MetOp satellite was to carry the same suite of instruments providing fine-scale global data, which could only be gathered in the low Earth orbit, such as vertical profiles of atmospheric temperature and moisture, wind speed and direction at the ocean surface, and some atmospheric trace gases. Observations from MetOp satellites promised significantly improve weather forecasts up to 10 days ahead. These forecasts were essential to protect life and limit damage to property, but they would also benefit the weather- sensitive sectors of the European economy, especially energy, transportation, construction, agriculture and tourism.

The three MetOp satellites, launched sequentially, were to provide continuous data until 2020. The first satellite, MetOp-A, was launched in 2006, and the third and final satellite, MetOp-C, was scheduled for launch at the end of 2017. By the end of 2012, the launch was postponed to February 2018. European Space Agency, ESA, was responsible for the development of the three MetOp satellites fulfilling EUMETSAT requirements, with major instruments provided by CNES and NOAA. ESA also carried out operations for the Launch and Early Orbit Phase to place the satellites in polar orbit, before handing them over to EUMETSAT for exploitation.

The MetOp satellites were built by EADS Astrium as the prime contractor. EUMETSAT developed all ground systems required to deliver products and services to users and to respond to their evolving needs, and operated the full system for the benefit of users. EUMETSAT also procured all Metop launch services. The EPS program was Europe’s contribution to the Initial Joint Polar System IJPS, along with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA.

As of September 2012, ESA planned to submit a proposal for the development of the next-generation Metop satellites, known as Metop SG to the agency's ministerial council meeting in November. In case of funding approval, the first of Metop SG satellite could fly in 2020.

Mission delays

All launches of MetOp satellites were prepared and managed by Starsem, the affiliate of European Arianespace company, operating the continent's fleet of space launchers.

As of September 2010, the launch of MetOp-B spacecraft was scheduled in the second quarter of 2012. The launch vehicle for the mission arrived to Baikonur by rail on March 4, 2012. The satellite was flown to the center two days later, with its launch promised in May 2012. In April 2012, delays with obtaining a permission of the Kazakh government for an impact site on its territory to drop a spent stage during the launch, pushed the mission from May 23 to the end of July 2012. In order to meet the launch date of July 23, the processing team had to arrive to Baikonur no later than May 29, an industry source reported on the online forum of the Novosti Kosmonavtiki magazine on May 17, 2011. The delay of the mission until the second half of August 2012 would create a schedule conflict with the Globalstar-2 campaign targeting its launch in October. While negotiating with the Kazakh government, Roskosmos tentatively moved the launch of Kanopus-V satellite to June 21.

Around May 10, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a protest note to the Kazakh government along with a letter from Russian President Vladimir Putin, holding the head of Kazakh space agency Talgat Musabaev responsible for the problem. The stalled MetOp mission was to be a subject of a May 15 talks in Moscow between Putin and Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbaev, however the issue reportedly did not come up, postponing the resolution of the problem until May 25, as the earliest. On May 26, the Interfax news agency reported that the mission had remained grounded by a lack of permission from the Kazakh government to drop the first stage of the launch vehicle in the northern region of this former Soviet republic.

By the beginning of June, the MetOp launch was considered likely to be delayed until September. On June 28, Arianespace officially confirmed that "fallback zones" for the mission had now been available and the launch was set for September 19. The Russian space agency announced the the processing of the Fregat upper stage for the mission started on July 24. On Aug. 20, 2012, Arianespace announced that the launch had been planned for September 17, or two days earlier than the launch date that had been previously reported by unofficial reports. The company also said the fueling of the satellite was about to begin.

The final assembly of the payload section containing the MetOp-B satellite was completed at Site 112 in Baikonur on September 10 and at the end of the day, the vehicle under its payload fairing was transported to Site 31 and integrated with launch vehicle on September 11. The Soyuz-2.1a rocket was rolled out to the launch pad on September 17.

According to the Russian Trud newspaper, a four-month delay of the MetOp-B launch cost EUMETSAT 12 million Euro and European representatives were reportedly still discussing the compensation issue with their Russian counterparts after the successful launch of the satellite in September 2012.

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Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: November 5, 2018

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