17 November 2020 Community news

Vega fails during launch of European Earth observation satellites

Satellites for both ESA and the French Space Agency have been lost in the launch

 The Vega VV17 mission getting ready to launch from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. Image: ESA
The Vega VV17 mission getting ready to launch from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. Image: ESA

On Tuesday 17 November, Arianespace announced the loss of the Vega VV17 mission, carrying two payloads: SEOSAT-Ingenio for ESA and TARANIS for the French space agency, CNES.

Two and a half months after Vega’s successful return to flight, the Vega launch vehicle lifted off as scheduled at 02:52 CET / 22:52 local time from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. The first three stages functioned nominally until the ignition of the AVUM upper stage, eight minutes after departure from the launch pad. At that time, a degraded trajectory was detected, followed by a loss of control of the vehicle and the subsequent loss of the mission.

The launcher fell in a completely uninhabited area close to the drop zone planned for the Zefiro-9 stage.

Initial investigations, conducted overnight with the available data, indicate that a problem related to the integration of the fourth-stage AVUM nozzle activation system is the most likely cause of the loss of control of the launcher.

In accordance with their standard protocols, Arianespace and ESA will set up an independent Inquiry Commission jointly chaired by Daniel Neuenschwander, Director of Space Transportation at ESA, and Stéphane Israël, Arianespace Chief Executive Officer, on 18 November. The Commission will provide detailed evidence to explain why steps were not taken to identify and correct the integration error. The Commission will formulate a road map for Vega’s return to flight under conditions of complete reliability. Arianespace and ESA will jointly present the findings of this commission.

“My thoughts are with all teams in particular at CDTI and at CNES for their hard work on the two lost satellites,” commented ESA Director General Jan Wörner. “I will personally make sure that we fully understand the root cause, but also that we bring Vega back to the robustness and reliability of service it has shown since its first launch in 2012.”

ESA developed SEOSAT–Ingenio as a Spanish national mission as a result of an international collaborative effort. It was funded by Spain’s Centre for the Development of Industrial Technology (CDTI) of the Ministry of Science and Innovation. Other partners included Airbus Defence and Space, being the prime industrial contractor of the satellite.

The Spanish high-resolution imaging mission, SEOSAT-Ingenio, was designed to provide high-resolution images of Earth’s land cover. By imaging in remarkable detail, this satellite mission would have benefitted society in various ways such as for monitoring land use, for planning urban development and for managing water resources. With its capability to look sideways, it would have been able to access any point on Earth within three days, and could have helped map natural disasters such as floods, wildfires and earthquakes.

ESA’s Director of Earth Observation Programmes, Josef Aschbacher, said, “We are all very sad for the loss of the SEOSAT-Ingenio land monitoring mission. But despite this loss, I want to recall that we have fully achieved the other objective, which is to build up a strong expertise in space systems in Spain. This was recently demonstrated by the signature of the industrial contract with Spanish industry as Prime of the Copernicus LSTM Expansion mission.”

Also on this flight was TARANIS, Tool for the Analysis of RAdiation from lightNIng and Sprites, an Earth observation microsatellite for the French space agency, CNES. It was designed to observe luminous, radiative and electromagnetic phenomena occurring at altitudes of 20 to 100 km over thunderstorms.

Vega is a 30 m-high, four-stage launch vehicle operating out of Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana. It is designed to lift between 300 kg and 1.5 tonnes of payload depending on the orbit and altitude.

ESA’s upcoming Vega-C, a more powerful version of Vega, will offer an extra 700 kg of capacity and enlarged volume within a wider launcher fairing at a similar cost to Vega – allowing even more passengers per individual rideshare launch at significant lower cost per kilogram.

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