Europe’s access to space compromised after new rocket fails

Published on Wednesday, December 21, 2022 at 3:12 pm.

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.

Two minutes and 27 seconds after liftoff on Tuesday, at 22:47 local time (01:47 GMT), the trajectory of the small rocket 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, the rocket had exceeded 100 kilometers in altitude and was just over 900 kilometers north of Kourou.

It was not immediately clear whether the rocket’s destruction device was activated or whether it fell into the sea.

Vega-C is now at risk of being grounded while we understand the causes of the failure.

“The mission is lost”, lamented Stéphane Israel, president of Arianespace, the company responsible for the operation and marketing of European launchers.

An anomaly occurred in Zefiro 40, the second stage of the launcher, the company said in a statement.

A press conference is scheduled for Wednesday in Kourou at 12:00 local time (15:00 GMT).

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 the complexity of this endeavor.

“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.

It is also a blow to the European giant, which developed this program with its own funds, whose services are sold to both 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.

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

– 21 launches, three misses –

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.

This was Vega-C’s first commercial flight following its July 13 qualifying launch. Touted as the little brother of the Ariane 6, the rocket uses certain common elements (the P120C main stage) to allow Europe to be more competitive in a booming satellite market.

The Zefiro 40 stage, involved in the launch failure, was developed specifically for Vega-C by its main industrial contractor, the Italian Avio.

Vega-C is an improved version of the Vega light launcher, which is the third failure in 21 launches since 2012, when Ariane 5 has had two in 115 launches since 1996 and Space X’s Falcon 9 none in 59 launches since 2012. beginning of the year .

Avio’s share price dropped nearly 9% in the early afternoon.

For the European Space Agency (ESA), responsible for European launcher programs, this is yet another setback.

There are only two Ariane 5s left for launch and the postponement to the end of 2023 of the inaugural flight of Ariane 6, initially scheduled for 2020, deprives Europeans of access to geostationary orbit, at an altitude of 36,000 kilometers, and of the possibility of sending the payloads heavier for space.

And due to lack of access to the Soyuz medium launcher, whose missions Arianespace marketed on behalf of international customers until February, the ESA was thus forced to resort to SpaceX to launch two scientific missions.

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