Human error at the root of the mission failure

Take off of a Vega rocket, in September 2020 (illustrative image). – Stephane CORVAJA / EUROPEAN SPACE AGENCY / AFP

The young European rocket Vega suffered the second failure in its history on Tuesday
by losing the two satellites it was carrying just after take-off, due to a problem during the manufacture of the launcher, assembled in Italy.

Eight minutes after a successful takeoff from the Kourou, in French Guiana, Monday at 22:52 local time (Tuesday at 2:52 Paris time), the trajectory of the launcher deteriorated, and the mission failed, without being able to place its payload in orbit. This is the second time in two years that Vega, light pitcher presented as the “little sister”
Ariadne, suffered a serious setback, after a failure in the summer of 2019 which had led to its destruction, as a precaution.

A “series” of human errors

Tuesday’s incident, however, has “nothing to do” with the first failure, because this time the error “does not come from the design, but from the production”, explained the CEO of Arianespace, Stéphane Israël, during a press conference from Kourou.

This is a “cable inversion” problem, which occurred during the manufacture of the launcher, the elements of which are integrated at the Avio site, near Rome in Italy. “It’s a quality problem, a series of human errors”, detailed Roland Lagier, technical director of Arianespace.

Arianespace and European Space Agency (ESA) will set up on Wednesday an independent commission of inquiry, responsible for “definitively validating the identified scenario and highlighting the reasons why this integration error was not detected and then corrected”.

Three lost satellites

“We will correct, and we will come back stronger,” assured the CEO of Arianespace, who apologized to the customers and builders of the lost satellites: a Spanish Earth observation satellite, SEOSAT-Ingenio, and a French storm physics exploration satellite, Taranis, on behalf of CNES, the French space agency. The program for the next three Arianespace launches by the end of the year, via Russian Soyuz rockets, remains unchanged, said Stéphane Israël.

The anomaly occurred on the fourth stage of the launcher – the upper stage, Avum – which carries the payload. “Everything went as planned during the first part of the flight, and it was when the fourth floor was ignited that we lost control,” said Roland Lagier. The launcher fell back into the sea, far from any inhabited area, the group said.

A still young rocket

This was the second mission of the year for Vega, who had “a difficult year 2020” (2 launches against 4 planned), Marino Fragnito, Vega’s director on the Arianespace executive committee, told AFP on Monday, referring to the Covid-19 epidemic and particularly unfavorable weather in Guyana that led to many postponements of the first flight.

It was to be the 17th launch in the history of this light rocket. Before its first failure in 2019, it had had fourteen consecutive successes since the start of its operation in 2012. “We are still in the youth of this launcher, unfortunately these failures happen,” underlined Stéphane Israël, recalling previous incidents. with Ariane.

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