This is yet another blow to Europe’s access to space: the first commercial flight of the new Vega-C rocket ended in failure on Tuesday night, shortly after its launch from Kourou.
Already victims of delays in the Ariane 6 launcher and the inability to use the Russian Soyuz rocket since the invasion of Ukraine, Europeans find themselves without a short-term solution to launch their satellites, Vega-C risking being idle long enough to understand the failure causes.
Shortly after liftoff, at 22:47 local time (01:47 GMT), the launcher’s trajectory deviated from the programmed one, so telemetry stopped reaching the control room at the Kourou Space Center in 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.
“The mission is lost”, lamented Stéphane Israel, president of Arianespace, the company responsible for the operation and marketing of European launchers.
“About 2 minutes and 27 seconds after take-off, an anomaly occurred on Zefiro 40”, the second stage of the launcher, “thus ending the Vega-C mission”, the company said in a statement.
“Data analyzes are ongoing to determine the reasons for this failure,” added Arianespace. A press point 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. Small launchers are a lot more complicated than most people think,” tweeted Peter Beck, head of the Rocket Lab mini-launcher.
Vega-C would place two Earth observation satellites from Airbus, Pléiades Neo 5 and 6, into orbit, enabling images of any point on the globe several times a day with a resolution of 30 cm.
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. Questioned by AFP, Airbus did not comment.
– Plane in turmoil –
Initially scheduled for November 24, this flight was delayed by a month due to a faulty element “related to the headdress”, Stéphane Israel told AFP. Not a priori related, therefore, to tonight’s failure.
This was Vega-C’s first commercial flight following its July 13 qualifying launch.
Capable of placing 2.2 tonnes in a reference polar orbit, Vega-C is the younger brother of Ariane 6, which uses common elements to make Europe more competitive in a booming market.
Around 24,500 satellites should be launched by 2031, almost five times more than in the past decade, according to the specialized company Euroconsult.
The Vega-C – C for “consolidation”, according to its main industrial contractor, Italian Avio – is an upgraded version of the Vega light launcher, which has failed twice in 20 launches since 2012. The Avio’s share price has dropped 9 .45% shortly after 10am.
The Zefiro 40 stage involved in the launch failure was developed specifically for the Vega-C, unlike other launcher parts common with the Ariane 6 (the main stage of the P120C) or the Vega.
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.
Vega-C must guarantee part of the missions previously returned to Soyuz. Twelve launches are foreseen in its backlog, in addition to two launches of Vega, previous version.