Europe’s first small rocket once again failed in flight.
The Vega vehicle was lost 2.5 minutes into its last mission from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana.
It carried two French-built high-resolution terrestrial imaging spacecraft.
It is Vega’s third failure in eight sorties and puts further pressure on the European satellite industry which has lost the use of Russian rockets and will soon see the Ariane-5 heavy launch vehicle retired.
The successor, Ariane-6, is at least a year away from commissioning.
It was the newer variant of Vega, known as Vega C, that failed. This rocket has four stages in total, most of which burn solid fuel.
The first stage engine, called P120C, seemed to run smoothly.
The anomaly occurred in the second stage of the rocket, the Zefiro 40.
An immediate analysis revealed “underpressure” in the segment. Real-time flight tracking showed the rocket was unable to maintain its intended path.
The vehicle and its Pleiades Neo Earth observation satellites crash into the Atlantic.
“After takeoff and nominal ignition of the P120C, which is the first stage of the Vega, a depression was observed on the Zefiro 40, which is the second stage of the Vega”, confirms Stéphane Israël, CEO of Arianespace, the company that operates the Kourou spaceport.
“And after this underpressure, we observed a deviation of the trajectory and a very strong anomaly. Unfortunately, we can say that the mission is lost.”
Mr. Israel apologized to the owners of the satellite, the aerospace company Airbus Defense and Space.
The two lost satellites would have been among the most powerful European optical imagers in space, capable of resolving ground detail as small as 30cm in diameter.
Airbus had previously sent four Pléiades Neo satellites. Units five and six would have completed the planned constellation.
Arianespace promises more details about the incident at a press conference later Wednesday.
An independent commission will be set up to investigate what happened. It is only after his conclusions have been rendered and all remedies have been taken that Vega can resume his flight.
For the previous failure, in November 2020, it was a gap of five months.
Satellite operators in Europe were already chasing a limited number of rockets.
The war in Ukraine and the resulting Western sanctions mean that Russian Soyuz rockets – a mainstay of European space operations – are no longer on the market.
The Ariane-5, the largest rocket in Europe, has only two flights left at the start of 2023, before its retirement. The Ariane-6 sequel, however, is not yet ready to fly. Its first mission is scheduled for the end of 2023 and could even slip into 2024.
The shortage of rides recently prompted the European Space Agency to buy two American launches.
The Euclid telescope and the Hera asteroid mission will ride on SpaceX Falcon-9 vehicles in 2023 and 2024 respectively.