Europe’s access to space compromised after new rocket fails

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Kourou (AFP) – Europe suffered overnight from Tuesday to Wednesday the failure of the first commercial flight of the new Vega-C rocket from Kourou, depriving the continent in the short term of an autonomous solution for launching its satellites, after the delay of Ariane 6 and the impossibility of using the Russian Soyuz rocket.

The small Vega-C rocket is grounded, while an “independent” commission of inquiry establishes “the cause of the failure and proposes solid and lasting corrective actions to guarantee a safe and reliable return to flight” of the launcher, announced, the dark mine , the President of Arianespace, Stéphane Israel, during a brief press conference in Kourou.

In addition to the last two launches of Ariane 5 and two more of Vega, Europe no longer has its own means of launching its satellites before the first flight of Ariane 6 scheduled for the fourth quarter of 2023, or the resumption of Vega-C flights.

Two minutes and 24 seconds after liftoff on Tuesday, at 22:47 local time (01:47 GMT), the small rocket’s trajectory deviated from the programmed one, so the telemetry stopped reaching the control room of the Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana.

Launched over the Atlantic Ocean, Vega-C had exceeded 100 kilometers in altitude and was just over 750 kilometers north of Kourou.

“We take full responsibility for this Vega-C failure,” said Avio boss Giulio Ranzo.

complex exercise

If the multiplication of the number of space launches in recent years, driven in particular by the North American SpaceX, tends to make the exercise trivial, the European failure is a reminder of its complexity.

“Sorry to hear that. This is a stark reminder of how difficult orbital spaceflight is,” tweeted SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. “It’s a lot more complicated than most people think,” said Peter Beck, head of the Rocket Lab mini-launcher.

Vega-C, which was the first commercial flight after a successful qualifying launch in July, would launch two Airbus Earth observation satellites, Pléiades Neo 5 and 6, into orbit, making it possible to image any point on the globe multiple times. a day with a resolution of 30 cm.

The European Vega-C light launcher © Aude GENET / AFP

It is also a disappointment for the European giant, which developed this program with its own funds, whose services are sold both to companies and the military.

Satellites that provide commercial revenue are generally insured. According to an expert in the sector, the Pléiades Neo 5 and 6 were covered for up to 220 million euros by a consortium of insurers, allowing, if Airbus decides, to resume manufacturing them. Questioned by AFP, Airbus did not comment.

Nine launches, three failures

The loss of these satellites is also bad news for armies, in particular the French, customers of the high-resolution images provided by this Airbus constellation to monitor the situation in Ukraine in particular, while the French military observation satellite CSO-3 n could not yet be launched due to lack of Soyuz and Ariane 6 availability.

Vega-C rocket lift off for its maiden flight, July 13, 2022 in Kourou, Guyana
Vega-C rocket lift off for its maiden flight, July 13, 2022 in Kourou, Guyana © S MARTIN / ESA-CNES-Arianespace/Optics/AFP/Archives

Initially scheduled for November 24, this flight was delayed by a month due to a faulty element “related to the fairing”, said Mr. Israel to AFP. Not a priori related, therefore, to tonight’s failure.

Touted as the little sister of the Ariane 6, the Vega rocket uses certain common elements (the main stage of the P120C).

The Vega-C is an improved version of the Vega light launcher, which is the third failure of the last nine launches, when Ariane 5 has had two in 115 launches since 1996. And SpaceX’s Falcon 9 none in 59 launches since the beginning of the year.

The blow is hard for the Italian industrialist, of whom three of the last Vega and Vega-C launches have failed. For the European Space Agency (ESA), also responsible for European launcher programs.

The Ariane 6 launcher on display at the 73rd International Astronautical Congress, September 18, 2022 in Paris
The Ariane 6 launcher on display at the 73rd International Astronautical Congress, September 18, 2022 in Paris © Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP/Archives

Due to the unavailability of Ariane 6 for a year, and deprived of access to the Russian Soyuz launcher, whose missions Arianespace marketed on behalf of international clients until the invasion of Ukraine in February, the ESA was forced to resort to SpaceX to launch two scientific missions missions.

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