Europe space affected by the failure of the first commercial flight of the Vega-C

Posted on December 21, 2022 at 8:24 amUpdated 22 Dec. 2022 at 11:53 am

Vega-C misses its first commercial. The new European light launcher, which carried two satellites from the Pléiades Neo constellation produced by Airbus, suffered a critical failure on Wednesday night, just over two minutes after moving away from the launch platform of the Guiana Space Center (CSG) from Kourou, in 2h47, Paris time.

“About 2 minutes and 27 seconds after take-off, an anomaly occurred in the Zefiro 40”, the second stage, which is part of the novelties of this version of the rocket, informed Arianespace. After deviating from its trajectory, Vega-C stopped transmitting telemetry to the CSG when it was over 100 km above sea level, 900 km north of Kourou above the Atlantic Ocean. No debris fallout was observed.

“The mission is lost”, acknowledged the CEO of Arianespace, Stéphane Israel. The company specifies that “data analyzes are underway to determine the reasons” for the incident and that a press conference will be organized at noon, Guyanese time, at 4 pm in Paris.

“So sorry to hear that,” tweeted SpaceX founder Elon Musk. It’s a sobering reminder of just how difficult orbital spaceflight is. “Small launchers are much more complex than most people realize. I am confident that the excellent Vega team will quickly resolve the issue,” commented Peter Beck, head of Rocket Lab, which operates the Electron microlauncher.

risk of paralysis

This failure is a snub for space Europe, which risks being paralyzed more than ever after a very difficult year 2022. After losing the Soyuz launchers from their range, withdrawn by the Russian space agency in March, in repercussions of sanctions against Moscow after the invasion of Ukraine, Arianespace had to deal with the new delays accumulated by the Ariane 6 program. First scheduled for the second quarter, then later this year, the new European heavy launcher saw its maiden flight finally postponed to the late 2023 at best.

This series of setbacks forced, in particular, the European Space Agency (ESA) to conclude, in October, contracts with the American SpaceX for the launch of the Euclid missions, in 2023, and Hera, in 2024. ‘Austrian Josef Aschbacher, at the time presented this choice as “a temporary measure”, already translated a hard blow to the sovereignty of the Old Continent in terms of access to space in the next two years, pending the entry into service and the ramp-up of the Aryan 6.

Vega-C’s first successful test run in July gave some cause for satisfaction. Produced by the Italian company Avio, this more muscular version of the Vega light launcher would (very) partially compensate for the withdrawal of the Soyuz in the medium payload segment. While Ariane 6 is long overdue and the last two copies of Ariane 5 will be released next year, Vega-C was above all Arianespace’s crutch for 2023 and 2024, with already twelve launches in its backlog. .

Big hit for Airbus

Everything will now depend on determining the causes of Wednesday’s failure and the speed with which any failures can be corrected. But in space, the loss of a mission often involves several months of paralysis. It took more than a year for Vega to find the launch pad after its first failure in the summer of 2019, certainly delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic. After the second, in the fall of 2020, it took more than five months.

The failure of Vega-C is also a very hard blow for the Defense and Space branch of Airbus, which has confirmed the loss of its two satellites. Once completed with the launch of Vega-C, the constellation Pléiades Neo, in which the manufacturer has invested several hundred million euros, would propel it to the top of the commercial space image, ahead of the American Maxar.

The four satellites – counting the two already launched in April and August 2021 – together should be able to provide an image anywhere on the globe up to four times a day, with an unrivaled resolution of 30 centimeters. Enough to offer “a head start” for France and Europe, according to François Lombard, Airbus’ director of intelligence, ahead of Wednesday’s launch. But that opportunity is gone body and soul with Vega-C.

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