The young European rocket Vega suffered the second failure in its history on Tuesday by losing the two satellites it was carrying just after takeoff. A problem during the manufacture of the launcher, assembled in Italy, is the cause.
Eight minutes after a successful takeoff from the space center in Kourou, French Guiana, Monday at 22:52 local time (Tuesday at 02:52 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 launcher presented as Ariadne’s “little sister”, has suffered a serious setback, after a failure in the summer of 2019 which had led to its destruction, as a precaution.
Tuesday’s incident has however “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 the 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 ”.
“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 of the next three launches of Arianespace by the end of the year, via Russian Soyuz rockets, remains otherwise unchanged, assured Mr. Israel.
Loss of control
The anomaly occurred on the 4th floor of the launcher – the upper floor, Avum – which carries the payload. “Everything went as planned during the first part of the flight, and it was during the lighting of the 4th floor that we lost control,” said Roland Lagier.
The launcher fell back into the sea, far from any inhabited area, the group said.
He thus lost SEOSAT-Ingenio (750 kg), the flagship mission of Spain’s strategic plan for space. It was a high-resolution optical imaging satellite, which was to power mapping, land-use and environmental monitoring applications.
Second loss: Taranis, the first scientific satellite designed to observe the hidden face of thunderstorms, mysterious electromagnetic phenomena occurring in the upper layers of the atmosphere, and discovered only about thirty years ago.
French mission, Taranis – named after the God of the sky and the storm in Celtic Gallic mythology – had been developed in cooperation with the Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux energies alternatives (CEA) and the national center for scientific research (CNRS) on behalf of the French National Center for Space Studies (CNES). The satellite carried eight instruments, at a cost of 110 million euros.
“It’s a terrible event, we have lost a beauty of technology, 15 years of hard work”, reacted Lionel Suchet, deputy director general of CNES.
It is a terrible event, we have lost a beauty of technology, 15 years of hard work.
Lionel Suchet, Deputy CEO of CNES
This was the second mission of the year for Vega, which had a “difficult 2020 year” (2 launches against 4 planned), Marino Fragnito, Vega’s director of the executive committee, told AFP on Monday. Arianespace, in reference 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 successes in a row since it began operating in 2012. “We are still in the youth of this launcher, unfortunately these failures happen,” underlined Stéphane Israël, recalling previous incidents. with Ariane.