After a five month grounding, Vega returned to flight following a launch failure in November 2020 — the rocket’s second in as many years. For its 18th mission, Vega launched the Pléiades-Neo 3 satellite along with several smaller rideshare payloads, taking advantage of the Small Satellite Mission Service offering from Arianespace, to Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO).
Liftoff was timed for exactly 22:50 local time in French Guiana on Wednesday, 28 April — which was 21:50 Eastern in the United States and 01:50 UTC on Thursday, 29 April. This was Arianespace’s third launch of the year overall and the first from the agency’s primary launch site in French Guiana.
Rocket and payload overviews:
Vega is a four-stage launch vehicle operated by Arianespace. Three of the four stages are solid rocket motors: the first stage is a P80 motor, the second a Zefiro-Z23, while the third stage is a Zefiro-Z9 motor. The fourth stage, called AVUM, carries hypergolic liquid fuel to power a restartable RD-869 Russian engine.
Vega’s only launch site is the Guiana Space Center from a pad now called Ensemble de Lancement Vega, or ELV. This pad began life as Base Équatoriale du CECLES (BEC) for the Europa II rocket.
When the Europa II launch failed to reach orbit in November 1971, the program was canceled and the pad went unused until December 1979 when it launched the first Ariane 1 rocket. As part of it’s new life with Ariane, the pad was renamed Ensemble de Lancement Ariane -1 (ELA-1) and supported launches of the Ariane 1, Ariane 2, and Ariane 3 rockets until July 1989 when the Ariane 3 retired.
In November 2001, work began to convert ELA-1 to be Vega’s home, which included modifications to the pad to handle the smaller, 137 ton, 30 meter tall, and 3 meter diameter solid propellant rocket.
Vega first launched in February 2012 with the LARES reflective satellites, as well as 8 rideshare payloads. The flight went perfectly, and Vega went on to fly 13 more flawless missions.
It suffered its first failure in July 2019 on the VV15 (Vega Vehicle 15) mission. While carrying the Falcon Eye 1 military satellite for the United Arab Emirates, a hot gas penetration of the forward dome led to the rapid structural failure of the Zefiro-Z23 stage resulting in vehicle break up during the stage’s ignition.
After a year-long stand down, in part lengthened due to the start of the COVID 19 pandemic and unfavorable upper level winds in the summer tropics over French Guiana, Vega successfully returned to flight in September 2020 with a 53 satellite “Proof of Concept” flight for the Small Spacecraft Mission Service (SSMS) program.
Unfortunately, Vega once again suffered a failure during the VV17 mission carrying the SEOSAT-Ingenio and TARANIS Earth observation satellites. Vega had a perfect ascent up to AVUM separation from the Zefiro-Z9 third stage. Due to cables being connected incorrectly to the Thrust Vector Control (TVC) system, incorrect control system inputs were sent to the stage, causing AVUM to lose control.
The stage and payload did not reach a stable orbit and reentered Earth’s atmosphere shortly after launch.
Arianespace has solved the AVUM wiring problem for VV18 and later missions by conducting additional tests and quality control inspections as well as ensuring all previously in-place inspections are followed, which were not for VV17 mission integration operations.
The VV18 mission was Vega’s return to flight and carried the primary payload of Pléiades-Neo 3, an Earth observation satellite. Built, owned, and operated by Airbus Defense and Space as a part of the Pléiades-Neo Earth observation constellation, it is one of four identical ~920 kg satellites that will orbit the Earth at 700 kilometers.
Each of the satellites will have a resolution of 30 cm and will use the European Data Relay Satellite (EDRS) system for near-real-time image access.
Along with Pléiades-Neo 3, Vega carried five rideshare payloads for four customers as a part of the SSMS part of the flight. This rideshare was the second SSMS mission after the aforementioned VV16. SSMS offers low-cost, flexible, and easy access to space for small-sat customers.
The first of these SMS payloads is NorSat-3 from the Space Flight Laboratory of the Norwegian Space Agency. NorSat-3 will carry an experimental radar detector to supplement the ship detection capabilities of its onboard Automatic Identification System.
Next is BRAVO, a 6U CubeSat from Aurora Insight. BRAVO will help expand the company’s radio frequency spectrum for data gathering infrastructure once it joins the in-orbit ALPHA and CHARLIE satellites.
The third rideshare payload is Tyvak-182A, or Eutelsat ELO alpha. A 6U CubeSat, Tyvak-182A is a testbed for future low-Earth orbit Internet of Things (IoT) constellations.
The final two satellites onboard are the Lemur-2 CubeSats from Spire. The 138th and 139th Lemur-2 CubeSats launched, they will conduct Earth observation, meteorology, and ship tracking operations.
Altogether, the six passengers carry a cumulative launch mass of 1,278 kg. Pléiades-Neo 3 was placed into a 628 km orbit at an inclination of 97.89 degrees while the other five payloads placed into a 613 km orbit at an inclination of 97.79 degrees.
On 21 April, Arianespace conducted a general dress rehearsal for launch, followed two days later with arming of the P80, Z23, and Z9 solid rocket motors ahead of launch. A Launch Readiness Review on 26 April cleared Vega for launch.
Given the rocket’s solid and hypergolic fuel, there is no pre-launch fueling as traditionally seen with rockets that use cryogenic liquid propellants. As such, a Vega countdown focuses on avionics activations and checkouts, day of launch software uploads for upper level wind patterns and flight trajectory targets, and removal of safety devices from the vehicle.
Vega is completely ready for launch at T-50 minutes. After a final weather check at T-10 minutes, the terminal count began at T-4 minutes.
At T0, the command is sent to light the P80 first stage, at which point Vega was committed to liftoff and flight.
|Time since launch||Event|
|T+1min 55secs||1st stage (P80) separation|
|T+1min 56secs||2nd stage (Zefiro-23) ignition|
|T+3mins 39secs||2nd stage (Zefiro-23) separation|
|T+03mins 51secs||3rd stage (Zefiro-9) ignition|
|T+03mins 56secs||Fairing separation|
|T+06mins 33secs||3rd stage (Zefiro-9) separation|
|T+08mins 07secs||1st ignition of AVUM|
|T+15mins 58secs||1st cut-off of AVUM|
|T+52mins 00secs||2nd ignition of AVUM|
|T+53mins 21secs||2nd cut-off of AVUM|
|T+54mins 29secs||Separation of Pleiades Neo 3 satellite|
|T+1hr 01min 42secs||3rd ignition of AVUM|
|T+1hr 01min 46secs||3rd cut-off of AVUM|
|T+1hr 37mins 35secs||4th ignition of AVUM|
|T+1hr 37mins 42secs||4th cut-off of AVUM|
|T+1hr 41mins 52secs||Separation of the five auxiliary payloads|
|T+1hr 50mins 29secs||5th ignition of AVUM (deorbit)|
|T+1hr 51mins 44secs||5th cut-off of AVUM|
On 19 March 2021, Arianespace reached an agreement with Vega’s prime contractor, Avio, to purchase ten of their new Vega-C launchers. With Avio’s development of Vega-C, Europe sees the vehicle creating a solid foundation for the continent’s access to space.
Arianespace’s CEO, Stéphane Israël, and Avio’s CEO, Guilio Ranzo, made the agreement — which constitutes Avio’s fourth batch of Vega orders and the first composed solely of the new Vega-C variant of the rocket family.
These vehicles will serve “institutional and commercial missions from 2023 onwards,” said Stéphane Israël, noting the rocket’s planned use in European science programs, especially Copernicus, the European Union’s ongoing Earth observation program.
Israël added that “Vega is establishing its role as the second pillar of Europe’s space access capabilities, along with Ariane.”
Led by Avio, along with sub-contractors around Europe, Vega has been a key asset for the European Space Agency (ESA) and Arianespace and has created launch opportunities for smaller payloads that would otherwise have had to use the higher-cost, Soyuz or Ariane 5 — which mainly target medium and heavy-class payloads, respectively, destined for low-Earth, geostationary, or heliocentric orbits.
As such, Arianespace has used Vega for small class missions or ride-share flights for numerous satellites — like SSMS.
With a current average launch cadence of two to three times a year, increasing with the operation of Vega-C and other planned variants, Vega aims to support Europe’s growing small-sat market demand, with the backing of ESA.
The new variant, Vega-C, is yet to fly, with its first flight currently planned for early 2022 with the Laser Relativity Satellite 2 (LARES 2) for the Italian Space Agency (ISA). This new addition to the family has been in development since 2014 under the plan of increasing payload capacity and launch flexibility over the current base variant.
Vega Consolidated (Vega-C) features upgraded first, second, and fourth stages, with the third ported over from Vega. Notably, Vega-C will use the P120C as its first stage, which will also be used as the side-mounted solid rocket boosters for the upcoming Ariane 6, Europe’s new heavy-lift launcher.
Vega-C can lift around 2,200 kg to a circular SSO. Avio has plans for a simplified Vega-C, Vega-C Light, removing the P120C first stage while maintaining a configuration of the other three stages for lighter, dedicated cube-sat or constellation replenishment missions.
Vega Evolved (Vega-E) is another planned variant, even more powerful than Vega-C, that would replace the existing third and fourth stages with a single cryogenic upper stage. This will utilize Avio’s M10 engine, making it the first liquid methane stage and engine used by Europe.
With a greater payload capacity and higher-performing upper stage, the vehicle will accommodate more satellites on SSMS rideshare missions, further reducing cost for customers. Equally, the stage will allow more complex and precise orbits, regardless of a dedicated payload or rideshare.
With M10 ground qualification testing set for 2024, Vega-E’s first flight is expected by 2025.
With the clear evolution of Vega, Europe is hoping it will flexibly respond to the small-sat and medium-sat market, whether that be rideshare or dedicated payloads, thanks to the ambitious adaptability of the launcher.