Europe’s new launch vehicle Vega enjoys successfull debut trip into space

by Chris Bergin

Europe has given birth to a new launch vehicle early on Monday, as Arianespace successfuly conducted the debut launch of their Vega rocket. The qualification flight lifted off at the start of a three hour launch window, which opened at 10:00 GMT. Vega carried a total of nine satellites from launch pad ELA-1 at the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.


The four-stage launcher is tailored to carry the growing number of small scientific spacecraft and other lighter-weight payloads under development or planned worldwide. Vega also offers configurations able to handle payloads ranging from a single satellite up to one main satellite plus six microsatellites.

Arianespace started work on the vehicle back in 2003 – as much as the origins of the concept range back to the 1990s – with ELV SpA (Italy) the lead manufacturer.

The debut launch was originally targeting 2007, as the upper stage passed vibration testing in Holland, ahead of the Critical Design Review (CDR). This date continued to slip year on year, including recently, ahead of the approved February 13 target.

Confirming the date, the new launcher passed its final hurdle on Saturday at Europe’s Spaceport, as the Launch Readiness Review (LRR), pass the vehicle for launch.

This last review checked the final status of the entire launch system, including the vehicle and the ground infrastructure, following the full dress rehearsal of the countdown and launch. Earlier, all four stages underwent final acceptance, including the testing of the avionics, guidance, telemetry, propulsion, separation pyrotechnics and safety systems.

The first mission, designated VV01 per Arianespace’s system, was scheduled for liftoff during a three-hour launch window lasting 10:00-13:00 GMT. A nominal countdown resulted in launch at the start of the window.

Flight VV01 departed from the new Vega launch site carrying nine satellites into orbit. This is one of Vega’s strengths, as – unlike other small launchers – the vehicle is able to place multiple payloads into orbit. In particular, it offers configurations able to handle payloads ranging from a single satellite up to one main satellite plus six microsatellites.

Vega is compatible with payload masses ranging from 300 kg to 2500 kg, depending on the type and altitude of the orbit required by the customers. The benchmark is for 1500 kg into a 700 km-altitude polar orbit.

The payload consists of two Italian satellites – ASI’s LARES laser relativity satellite and the University of Bologna’s ALMASat-1 – as well as seven picosatellites provided by European universities: e-Star (Italy), Goliat (Romania), MaSat-1 (Hungary), PW-Sat (Poland), Robusta (France), UniCubeSat GG (Italy) and Xatcobeo (Spain).

The flight is qualifying the overall Vega system, including the vehicle, the ground infrastructure and operations, from the launch campaign to the payload separation and disposal of the upper module. In particular, it demonstrated the vehicle’s performance and payload services.

Vega’s P80 advanced solid propellant motor first stage motor also underwent a static fire test in Kourou in 2006. This stage features a novel filament-wound casing structure – utilizing new-generation, high-quality production techniques.

The second and third stages – designated Zefiro 23 and Zefiro 9, respectively – also use solid propellant motors, while the launcher is topped off by the bi-propellant liquid upper stage (called AVUM – Attitude and Vernier Upper Module). Test firings of these motors took place between 2008 and 2009.

With the countdown proceeding without incident, Vega’s P80 solid-propellant engine ignited first and a fraction of a second later the vehicle lifted off, jumping off the pad with impressive speed. It burned out and separated at 1 min 54 sec. The Zefiro-23 second stage then ignited one second later and was jettisoned 3 min 22 sec into the flight.

About 16 seconds later, the Zefiro-9 third stage ignited. The fairing protecting the payload during the climb through Earth’s atmosphere was discarded at 3 min 43 sec, followed by Zefiro-9 separation at 5 min 47 sec.

The first firing of the AVUM liquid-propellant fourth stage began at 5 min 54 sec; the second burn was conducted at 48 min 7 sec.

At 55 min 5 sec into the flight, Italy’s LARES laser-ranging satellite separated from the upper stage.

AVUM’s third burn began at 66 min 10 sec, followed by the separation of ALMaSat-1 and the seven CubeSats at 70 min 35 sec. Vega’s flight was completed 81 min after first-stage ignition.

The mission is intended to qualify the overall Vega system, including the vehicle itself, its launch infrastructure and the operations, from the launch campaign to the payload separation and safe disposal of the upper stage.

Following this qualification flight, the Vega launch system will be handed over to Arianespace to operate. The company will also be in charge of offering this new launch capacity on the international market, with the goal of at least two missions per year. ESA will be an early customer of Arianespace’s new service through a commitment for five launches.

ESA and Arianespace having already ordered four new launchers, amid studies for the launch of the LISA Pathfinder mission. The order complements the purchase of a first launcher in an agreement signed last year within the framework of the Verta contract, covering the five launches that follow Vega’s qualification flight.

The studies for the launch of the LISA Pathfinder scientific satellite of ESA, using a Vega launcher from the Verta batch, started at the end of September. The mission is scheduled for a launch window from October 2013 to September 2014.

Vega will also carry out the launch of ESA’s IXV (Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle), which is now into a detailed planning stage, a major step towards the spacecraft’s projected 2014 flight. (L2 Link to 15 Presentations on IXV)

Launched into a suborbital trajectory from Kourou, the IXV will return to Earth as if from a low-orbit mission, allowing for the testing and qualification of new critical technologies for future reentry vehicle concepts.

During it mission, the vehicle will aim for an altitude of around 450 km, allowing it to reach a velocity of 7.5 km/s on entering the atmosphere and will collect a large amount of data during its hypersonic and supersonic flight, while it is being controlled by thrusters and aerodynamic flaps.

IXV will then descend by parachute and land in the Pacific Ocean to await recovery and analysis.

This was the debut launch of the third vehicle in Arianespace’s family of launchers which includes the heavy Ariane 5, and the medium lift Soyuz.

(Images via Arianespace, ESA, L2)

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