Nearly a year has gone by since an Italian-made Vega rocket launched a 1.2-ton satellite from French Guiana only to subsequently fail at reaching orbit. Now, the Vega rocket is set for its return-to-flight mission on Thursday night at 9:51pm ET (01:51 UTC Friday). It will be broadcast on ESA Web TV.
This is an important mission for more than just getting the Vega rocket back on track. It also is the first launch of a rocket from the European spaceport in French Guiana since February, after which the facility closed down due to COVID-19 precautions.
Additionally, with this mission, the small Vega booster seeks to prove its bona fides as a booster capable of flying rideshare missions. On this launch, the rocket will debut the “Small Spacecraft Mission Service” dispenser to deploy payloads of varying sizes into multiple orbits.
Return to flight
First launched in 2012, Vega is a four-stage rocket capable of lofting nearly 1.5 tons into a polar orbit. The rocket’s first three stages are solid-fueled, with a liquid fourth stage. The European Space Agency contracts with the Italian company Avio to develop and build the Vega rocket. The European launch company, Arianespace, commercializes and operates the rocket.
In an interview with Ars, the chief executive of Avio, Giulio Ranzo, said the failure last year—the first failure in 15 launches of the booster—occurred shortly after ignition of the rocket’s second-stage motor. An insulation failure allowed hot gas to get into the second stage, causing the rocket to break up.
Following an investigation, Avio corrected this problem by installing additional insulation and taking other preventative steps. A new rocket was stacked and readied for launch from French Guiana in late February. “The rocket was ready, and then COVID-19 struck,” Ranzo said. This halted operations in French Guiana, where the rocket was disconnected and essentially put into storage.
Back in Europe, Avio has offices in some of the Italian areas hardest hit by the pandemic, and so the company went almost exclusively to remote work. But now, Avio is taking steps toward returning to normalcy, while practicing social distancing and mask-wearing in the workplace, Ranzo said. The company is on track to fly as many as three more Vega missions in 2020 before debuting the larger Vega-C rocket in early 2021.
Avio is positioning Vega to be competitive in offering rideshare opportunities for smaller satellites. For this week’s VV16 mission, the company plans to launch 53 separate satellites, ranging from 1kg CubeSats up to 500kg mini-satellites. The new dispenser is designed to be configured to the various demands of each new rideshare mission.
Ranzo acknowledged the recent announcement by SpaceX that it intends to fly rideshare missions on its Falcon 9 rocket at highly competitive prices. However, he said, it is easier to take a smaller rocket like Vega and adapt it to smallsats than it is to take a much larger rocket and do so. “Vega was designed to launch small satellites from the beginning,” he said.
A successful launch this week would go a ways toward proving that.