European Vega rocket suffers second failure in three launches

A Vega rocket took off Monday night from French Guiana with two European satellites, but the launcher failed to deploy the payloads into orbit. Credit: Arianespace

A European Vega rocket crashed back to Earth shortly after launching from French Guiana carrying a Spanish land imaging satellite and a French research probe with a combined value of nearly $400 million.

Both satellites were destroyed in the accident, the second launch failure in the last three flights of Europe’s Vega rocket program.

The 98-foot-tall (30-meter) Vega launcher blasted off from the European-run Guiana Space Center in South America at 8:52:20 p.m. EST Monday (0152:20 GMT Tuesday). Heading north over the Atlantic Ocean, three solid-fueled rocket stages fired in succession to boost the Vega rocket and its two satellite payloads to nearly 17,000 mph — nearly 7.6 kilometers per second — just shy of the velocity required to achieve orbit.

A liquid-fueled upper stage — known as the Attitude and Vernier Upper Module, or AVUM — was supposed to fire four times Monday night to place the Spanish SEOSAT-Ingenio Earth observation satellite and the Taranis research spacecraft from the French space agency CNES into slightly different orbits at an altitude of roughly 420 miles (676 kilometers) .

But something went wrong just after the first ignition of the AVUM fourth stage.

“After the first nominal ignition of the last stage engine, an anomaly has occurred, which caused a trajectory deviation entailing the loss of the mission,” said Avio, the Vega rocket’s Italian prime contractor, in a statement. “Data analyses are in progress to determine the causes.”

A live webcast produced by Arianespace, the Vega rocket’s launch operator, showed the launcher flying normally in the first eight minutes of the mission. Soon after the operations director inside the launch control center called out ignition of the AVUM upper stage, data displayed on the webcast showed the rocket losing velocity and deviating from its planned trajectory.

Arianespace put the webcast on standby to assess data from the rocket. The webcast later resumed and Arianespace confirmed the launch failed.

“We can now confirm that mission is lost,” said Stéphane Israël, Arianespace’s CEO. “At eight minutes after the liftoff, and immediately after the ignition of the engine of the fourth stage of Vega — the AVUM stage — we have observed a degradation of the trajectory.

“It means that the speed was not nominal anymore, so we have observed this degradation,” Israël continued.

If it had reached orbit, the rocket’s upper stage was expected to fly over the Galliot ground station at the spaceport in French Guiana a little more than an hour-and-a-half after launch. Ground teams received no signals from the rocket.

“I want to present my deepest apologies to my customers for this mission,” Israël said. “So sad for ESA and for Spain, and for CNES … We have now to analyze, to understand. Our experts are now consolidating the data they have, and we will gather a press conference (Wednesday).”

Arianespace oversees launches of the light-class Vega rocket, the heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket, and Russian medium-class Soyuz vehicles from French Guiana.

The Vega rocket is capable of placing up to 3,300 pounds — 1.5 metric tons — of payload into a 435-mile-high (700-kilometer) polar orbit. The Vega program accomplished 14 consecutive successful flights after the rocket’s inaugural launch in 2012.

But a Vega rocket failed on a July 2019 mission with the Falcon Eye 1 military spy satellite for the United Arab Emirates. Investigators traced the cause to a “thermo-structural failure” on the forward dome of the Vega rocket’s solid-fueled second stage, which led to the in-flight breakup of the launch vehicle.

The Vega rocket returned to service with a successful launch Sept. 2 that delivered 53 small satellites to orbit for numerous international customers. Besides signaling the Vega rocket’s return to operations, the Sept. 2 rideshare launch demonstrated a new multi-satellite dispenser aimed at helping Arianespace attract more small satellite launch business.

An upgraded rocket named the Vega C with more powerful first and second stage motors is scheduled to launch for the first time in mid-2021. The Vega C will be able to carry up to 50 percent more payload mass to orbit than the basic version of the Vega rocket.

The Vega rocket’s payload fairing containing the SEOSAT-Ingenio and Taranis satellites is placed on top of the AVUM upper stage. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace – Photo Optique Video du CSG – JM Guillon

The AVUM upper stage’s structure is produced by Airbus, and the Ukrainian rocket contractors Yuzhnoye and Yuzhmash supply the AVUM stage’s main engine, which consumes hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide propellants.

Spain’s SEOSAT-Ingenio satellite was riding in the upper position of the Vega rocket’s Vespa dual-payload dispenser, while France’s Taranis research payload launched in the lower berth of the Vega payload shroud.

SEOSAT-Ingenio, built by Airbus in Spain, weighed around 1,650 pounds (750 kilograms), according to a press kit released by Arianespace. Carrying two optical cameras, the satellite was designed with an imaging resolution of around 8.2 feet, or 2.5 meters, in black-and-white. Its cameras were expected to take pictures along swaths 34 miles (55 kilometers) wide.

The spacecraft’s observing instrument would have also collected data in blue, green, red and near-infrared wavelengths, and the satellite was designed to be able to look sideways to image regions on each side of its ground track. Data from the mission was expected to help scientists, policymakers, and other users track changes in land use.

Designed primarily for civilian use, SEOSAT-Ingenio was supposed to collect imagery for the European Commission’s Copernicus program, which includes a fleet of dedicated Sentinel environmental monitoring satellites. As a contributing mission in the Copernicus fleet, SEOSAT-Ingenio was expected to supplement data gathered by the Sentinel satellites distributed worldwide and free of charge.

“SEOSAT is a very versatile satellite and serves many domains of applications, from agriculture to disaster management, also fisheries, forest fires, there are many (areas) where SEOSAT can be used,” said Josef Aschbacher, director of Earth observation programs at the European Space Agency, before the launch.

ESA managed development of the SEOSAT-Ingenio on behalf of the Spanish government, which funded the mission and owned the satellite. ESA also organized the data pipeline to distribute SEOSAT-Ingenio imagery to global users, and ESA operators in Germany were prepared to oversee the satellite’s early activation and commissioning after launch, before handing over control to Spanish engineers.

Designed for a mission of at least seven years, the spacecraft was primarily expected to take images over Spain, other parts of Europe, North Africa, and Latin America. But SEOSAT-Ingenio’s orbit would have enabled worldwide coverage, and its geographic reach would have spanned the globe.

“SEOSAT-Ingenio will help us to better understand climate change,” Aschbacher said before the launch. “For example, one important parameter in climate change is land use change, change from agricultural areas into urban areas, or from forested areas into non-forested areas. SEOSAT, through its routine operation and routine monitoring of the land surface, certainly helps a lot to better understand a very important parameter of climate change.”

Another goal of the SEOSAT-Ingenio project, which Spain’s government kicked off in 2007, was to foster a growing Spanish space industry. About 80 percent of the spacecraft was manufactured in Spain, while previous Spanish government satellites were only about half-manufactured in Spain, according to Lomba Ferreras.

The SEOSat-Ingenio Earth observation satellite is seen mounted on top of the Vega rocket’s Vespa dual-payload adapter before encapsulation inside the payload shroud. The French Taranis satellite is contained inside the Vespa structure. Credit: Airbus

Juan Carlos Cortés, director of space and dual programs at the Spanish Center for the Development of Industrial Technology, aid the SEOSAT-Ingenio project cost around 200 million euros, or $236 million.

The French Taranis research satellite was designed to trace the origins of mysterious luminous phenomena above thunderstorms. These Transient Luminous Events, or TLEs, are electrical discharges that last just milliseconds, and scientists are unsure of the mechanisms and physics the produce them.

TLEs manifesting themselves as red sprites and blue jets are sometimes visible on dark nights, especially from aircraft. Phenomena known as elves are the most difficult to detect, requiring special photographic equipment.

Long theorized with sporadic observations which were spread by word-of-mouth, bright electrical bursts above thunderstorms were first documented in 1989 by ground-based observations and instruments on the space shuttle. Scientists know little about how the discharges are triggered, or how they reach so high in the atmosphere, near the edge of space.

Taranis, led by the French space agency CNES, would have attempted to untangle what triggers these brief flashes above thunderstorms, and how TLEs might affect conditions within the atmosphere or in space.

The 385-pound (175-kilogram) Taranis satellite “will be capable of detecting these phenomena and recording their light and radiation signatures at fine resolution, as well as the electromagnetic disturbances they generate in the upper layers of Earth’s atmosphere,” CNES said in a press release before the failed launch.

The instruments aboard Taranis included cameras, X-ray and gamma-ray detectors, electron detectors, a magnetometer, and sensors to detect plasma and electric fields in space.

Built for a mission of two-to-four years, Taranis would have also studied Terrestrial Gamma-ray Flashes, or TGFs, brief bursts of gamma-ray photons observed emanating from thunderstorms around the world.

“Taranis is the first space mission combining optical, gamma, energetic particles and eletric and magnetic measurements to improve our understanding of these phenomena,” said Jean-Louis Pinçon, science lead for the Taranis mission from CNRS, the French national scientific research center. “Ultimately, once the generation mechanisms will be fully understood, we will have the possibility to estimate the real impacts of TLEs and TGFs on the physics and chemistry of the upper atmosphere.”

CNES spent about 115 million euros, or $136 million, on the Taranis project since it began in 2010, Pinçon said.

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