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Vega C fails on second launch

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WASHINGTON — Arianespace’s second Vega C flight failed to reach orbit on Dec. 12. 20 after its second stage malfunctioned, destroying two Pleiades Neo imaging satellites.

The Vega C rocket lifted off at 8:47 p.m. Eastern Time from Kourou, French Guiana, carrying the Pléiades Neo 5 and 6 imaging satellites for Airbus. The takeoff took place on schedule and the first phases of the flight seem to be proceeding as planned.

However, on-screen telemetry showed the rocket deviating from its intended path within four minutes of liftoff, as the rocket’s Zefiro-40 second stage burned. Arianespace said in a later statement that the stage malfunctioned 2 minutes and 27 seconds after liftoff, seconds after the stage was turned on.

The flight continued for several minutes, including separation of the second stage and ignition of the third stage, as well as separation of the fairing from the payload, even as the stage reached a peak of 110 kilometers and began to go down.

“After takeoff and nominal ignition of the P120C, which is the first stage of Vega, a depression was observed on the Zefiro-40, which is the second stage of Vega”, explains Stéphane Israël, CEO of Arianespace. said on the launch webcast a few minutes later. “After this stress, we observed the deviation of the trajectory and very strong anomalies, so unfortunately we can say that the mission is lost.”

He did not provide additional details about the issue. “We will now have to work with all of our partners to better understand why the Zefiro-40 did not perform properly tonight, triggering the mission failure,” he said, apologizing to ‘Airbus Defense and Space, the launch customer. Arianespace then ended the launch webcast.

The launch was the second for the Vega C after a successful maiden launch of the rocket on July 13 carrying a set of institutional payloads. This was the first commercial launch of the Vega C. The launch was postponed from late November due to a pyrotechnics issue in the payload fairing separation system.

The Vega C is an upgraded version of the Vega rocket with increased payload performance. Among the changes was the introduction of the Zefiro-40 solid-fuel second stage, which replaced the less powerful Zefiro-23 used on the Vega. Avio is the master builder of the Vega C.

The Vega suffered two failures in three launches in 2019 and 2020. A 2019 UAE Falcon Eye 1 imaging satellite Vega launch failed Due to a problem with the thermal protection system of part of the second stage of the rocket. A Launch of Vega in November 2020 failed when its Avum upper stage fell off immediately after ignition due to what Arianespace later determined to be improperly connected cables.

The failure of the Vega C is a further blow to European efforts to maintain launch autonomy. The Vega C was one of the cornerstones of this strategy, with Ariane 6 still in development, with European Union awards contract to Arianespace Nov. 29 for five Vega C launches of Sentinel satellites. This contract increased the backlog of Vega C to 13 launches, along with two remaining launches of the original Vega.

The failed launch also hurt Airbus, which was counting on the launch to supplement its constellation of high-resolution imaging satellites. The Pléiades Neo 5 and 6 were similar to the previously launched Pléiades Neo 3 and 4 but included laser links for faster image transmission. One Unspecified “equipment problem” with Pléiades Neo 3 led Airbus to file a partial insurance claim after its launch in April 2021. Airbus said the launch of Pléiades Neo 5 and 6 would enable it to circumvent issues with Pléiades Neo 3 and meet all of its customer commitments.