Vega C fails on second launch
WASHINGTON — The second flight of Arianespace’s Vega C failed to enter orbit on Dec. 20 after its second stage malfunctioned and destroyed two Pléiades Neo imaging satellites.
The Vega C rocket lifted off at 8:47 p.m. east of Kourou, French Guiana, carrying the Pléiades Neo 5 and 6 imaging satellites for Airbus. The launch took place on schedule and the initial stages of the flight appeared to proceed as planned.
However, on-screen telemetry showed that the missile deviated from its planned trajectory within four minutes of launch, during the firing of the missile’s Zefiro-40 second stage. Arianespace said in a later statement that the stage malfunctioned 2 minutes and 27 seconds after launch, seconds after the stage ignited.
The flight lasted several minutes, including separating the second stage and igniting the third stage, as well as separating the fairings, even as the stage peaked at 70 miles and began to descend.
“After launch and rated firing of Vega’s first stage P120C, a negative pressure was observed on Vega’s Zefiro-40 second stage,” said Stéphane Israel, CEO of Arianespace. said a few minutes later on the launch webcast. “After this suppression, we observed the trajectory drift and very strong anomalies, so unfortunately we can say that the mission is lost.”
He gave no further details about the problem. “We will now have to work with all our partners to better understand why the Zefiro-40 did not work properly tonight, causing the mission to fail,” he said, apologizing to Airbus Defense and Space, the launch customer. Arianespace then ended the launch webcast.
The launch was the second for the Vega C after that a successful inaugural launch of the rocket on July 13 with a range of institutional charges. This was the first commercial launch of the Vega C. The launch was delayed to the end of November due to a pyrotechnics problem in the charge streamline separation system.
The Vega C is an upgraded version of the Vega missile with a larger payload. Among the changes is the introduction of the Zefiro-40 solid fuel second stage, which replaced the less powerful Zefiro-23 used on the Vega. Avio is the prime contractor for the Vega C.
The Vega suffered two failures in three launches in 2019 and 2020. A 2019 Vega launch of UAE’s Falcon Eye 1 imaging satellite failed due to a problem with the thermal protection system on part of the rocket’s second stage. A Vega launch in November 2020 failed when the Avum upper stage tumbled immediately after ignition due to what Arianespace later determined to be improperly connected cables.
The failure of the Vega C is another blow to European efforts to maintain autonomy at launch. The Vega C was one of the cornerstones of that strategy, along with the still-in-development Ariane 6, with the European Union awards Arianespace a contract for five Vega C launches of Sentinel satellites on November 29. That contract brought the Vega C backlog to 13 launches, along with two remaining launches from the original Vega.
The launch failure also hurts Airbus, which had counted on the launch to add to its constellation of high-resolution imaging satellites. Pléiades Neo 5 and 6 were similar to the previously launched Pléiades Neo 3 and 4, but included laser links for faster image transfer. One unspecified “equipment problem” with Pléiades Neo 3 led to Airbus filing a partial insurance claim after launch in April 2021. Airbus said the launch of Pléiades Neo 5 and 6 would allow the company to circumvent the Pléiades Neo 3 issues and meet all of its customer obligations.
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