Europe’s Vega rocket returns to Earth

Artwork of the Zefiro 40 stage firing the Vega-C rocket

Europe’s first small rocket has once again failed to fly.

The Vega vehicle was lost 2.5 minutes on its last mission from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana.

It carried two French-made high-resolution Earth imaging spacecraft.

This is Vega’s third failure in eight outings and puts further pressure on the European satellite sector which has lost the use of Russian rockets and will soon see the withdrawal of the Ariane-5 heavy launcher.

The next replacement, Ariane-6, is at least a year away from commissioning.

It was the new variant of Vega, known as Vega C, that failed. This rocket has four stages in total, most of which burn solid fuel.

The first stage motor, called the P120C, appeared to run smoothly.

The anomaly occurred in the second stage of the rocket, the Zephyr 40.

An immediate analysis revealed an “underpressure” in the segment. Real-time flight monitoring showed that the rocket was unable to maintain its planned trajectory.

The vehicle and its Pléiades Neo Earth observation satellites crashed in the Atlantic.

“After take-off and nominal ignition of P120C, which is Vega’s first stage, a depression was observed on Zefiro 40, which is Vega’s second stage,” confirmed Stéphane Israël, CEO of Arianespace, the company which manages the Kourou spaceport.

“And after this underpressure, we observed a deviation of the trajectory and a very strong anomaly. Unfortunately we can say that the mission is lost”.

Mr. Israel has apologized to the owners of the satellites, the aerospace company Airbus Defense and Space.

The two lost satellites would have been among the most powerful European optical imagers in space, capable of resolving details on the ground up to 30 cm in diameter.

Airbus had previously lofted four Pléiades Neo satellites. Units five and six would complete the planned constellation.

Arianespace promises more details about the crash in a media briefing next Wednesday.

An independent commission will be set up to investigate the incident. Only after his findings are delivered and all remedies taken can Vega be expected to fly again.

For the previous bankruptcy, in November 2020, this was a gap of five months.

Satellite operators in Europe were already tracking a small number of missile trips.

The war in Ukraine, and the ensuing Western sanctions, mean that Russia’s Soyuz rockets – a mainstay of European space operations – are no longer on the market.

Ariane-5, Europe’s largest rocket, has just two more flights in early 2023, before being retired. The sequel to Ariane-6, however, is not yet ready for flight. Its first mission is scheduled for the end of 2023 and could even slip into 2024.

Shortages of rides recently prompted the European Space Agency to purchase two American launches.

The Euclid telescope and the Hera asteroid mission will be mounted on SpaceX Falcon-9 vehicles in 2023 and 2024, respectively.

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