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Europe has few options to reach space after Vega-C rocket crash

Europe has few options to reach space after Vega-C rocket crash

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The Vega-C rocket lifts off from its launch pad at the Kourou Space Base in French Guiana on December 21, 2022.

The Vega-C rocket launches from its launch pad at the Kourou space base, French Guiana, December 21, 2022. Photo by JM Guillon (AP)

Earlier this week, Arianespace’s Vega-C rocket suffered a fatal anomaly that resulted in the loss of two satellites. The rocket, which debuted a few months ago, was intended to fill a major gap for Europe’s space industry but is now on the ground for an investigation.

Arianespace and the European Space Agency (ESA) have set up an independent commission of inquiry to analyze the reason for the rocket’s failure on Tuesday and determine what needs to be done before Vega-C can resume flight, according to an Arianespace statement.

It’s not yet clear how long the Vega-C rocket will be suspended while the independent commission investigates the mission’s failure on Tuesday. After a mishap in July 2019, the rocket had been on the ground for more than a year when the investigation took place, SpaceNews reported. According to the BBC, this is the third time a Vega rocket has suffered a mission failure in the last eight launches.

Vega-C is being developed by ESA, built by Italian company Avio and operated by Arianespace. The rocket lifted on Tuesday at 20:47 ET from the Kourou Space Base in French Guiana using the Neo 5 and Neo 6 satellites for Airbus’ Pléiades Neo Earth-Imaging constellation.

The rocket’s first stage, the new P120C engine, worked as designed. However, about two and a half minutes after launch, ground crews noticed a depressurization in the rocket’s second-stage Zefiro 40 engine. “Following standard procedure, the order to destroy the launch vehicle was issued by CNES, the launch safety agency,” Arianespace wrote in the statement.

“We take full responsibility for this Vega-C outage,” Avio CEO Giulio Ranzo said during a news conference on Wednesday. According to SpaceNews, shares of the company fell 9.5% on Wednesday.

This was Vega-C’s second flight and the first time it had carried a commercial payload. On Jul 13, Vega-C successfully completed its inaugural flight, launching the Italian Space Agency’s LARES-2 into orbit as the primary payload.

Vega-C is the eagerly awaited successor to the Vega carrier, which has been in service for 10 years. The upgraded rocket is more efficient, featuring a more powerful first and second stage, as well as an improved re-ignitable upper stage. Vega-C’s arrival was well timed given the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the resulting geopolitical complications.

In fact, ESA previously relied on Russia’s medium-capacity Soyuz rockets to launch many of its missions into space. But in February, Russia halted Soyuz launches from French Guiana and withdrew its personnel from the space base in response to European sanctions imposed on Russia. This left key missions in limbo, including two Galileo navigation satellites, ESA’s Euclid space observatory, EarthCARE earth exploration satellites and a French reconnaissance satellite.

Suddenly, Europe had little choice in launch vehicles as it awaited the maiden flights of Vega-C and Ariane 6. Ariane 6, a successor to Ariane 5, was originally scheduled to launch in 2020 but has suffered numerous delays and is now scheduled to fly in 2023.

ESA finally approached SpaceX after weighing its options between the Elon Musk-led company and rockets supplied by either Japan or India. During an interview with Reuters in August, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher said SpaceX is “the more operational of those and certainly one of the backup launches that we’re considering.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” wrote Musk responded to the missile failure on Twitter yesterday. “It’s a sobering reminder of the difficulty of spaceflight.”

ESA expected Vega-C to begin lifting European payloads into orbit, tasks that have now been put on hold due to the mission’s failure on Tuesday. Hopefully, ESA and its private partners will quickly recover from this setback and begin launching payloads on a more consistent basis.

More: SpaceX rival loses hundreds of millions over aborted Russian launches

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