WASHINGTON — The second flight of Arianespace’s Vega C failed to reach orbit Dec. 20 after its second stage malfunctioned, destroying two Pléiades Neo imaging satellites.
The Vega C rocket lifted off at 8:47 p.m. east from Kourou, French Guiana, carrying the Pléiades Neo 5 and 6 imaging satellites for Airbus. The takeoff took place on schedule and the initial stages of the flight appeared to be going as planned.
However, on-screen telemetry showed the missile deviating from its planned trajectory within four minutes of liftoff, during the Zefiro-40 missile’s second stage burn. Arianespace said in a later statement that the stage failed 2 minutes and 27 seconds after takeoff, seconds after the stage caught fire.
The flight continued for several minutes, including the separation of the second stage and the ignition of the third stage, as well as the separation of the payload, until the stage reached its apogee of 110 kilometers and began to descend.
“After liftoff and nominal ignition of P120C, Vega’s first stage, a pressure drop was observed on Zefiro-40, Vega’s second stage,” Stéphane Israelël, CEO of Arianespace, said in the launch webcast a few minutes later. “After this underpressure, we noticed trajectory drift and very strong anomalies, so unfortunately we can say the mission is lost.”
He did not provide additional details about the problem. “We will now have to work with all of our partners to better understand why the Zefiro-40 did not operate properly tonight, which led to the failure of the mission,” he said, offering an apology to Airbus Defense and Space, the customer for the launch. Arianespace then finished the launch webcast.
The launch was the Vega C’s second after the successful inaugural launch of the rocket on July 13 carrying an array of Enterprise payloads. This was the Vega C’s first commercial launch. The launch was delayed from late November due to a pyrotechnic problem with the payload 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 solid fuel Zefiro-40 second stage, which replaced the less powerful Zefiro-23 used on the Vega. Avio is the prime contractor for the Vega C.
Vega suffered two failures on three launches in 2019 and 2020. Vega’s 2019 launch of the UAE’s Falcon Eye 1 imaging satellite failed due to a problem with the thermal protection system in part of the rocket’s second stage. The November 2020 Vega launch failed when Avum’s upper stage tripped immediately after ignition due to what Arianespace later determined were improperly connected cables.
The Vega C failure deals another blow to European efforts to maintain autonomy at launch. Vega C was one of the main pillars of that strategy, along with the still-in-development Ariane 6, as the European Union awarded a contract to Arianespace on November 29 in exchange for the launch of five Vega-C Sentinel satellites. This contract brought the Vega C backlog to 13 launches, along with the remaining two launches from the original Vega.
The launch failure also hurt Airbus, which had been counting on the launch to add to its collection 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. An unspecified “equipment issue” with the Pleiades Neo 3 led Airbus to file a partial insurance claim after its launch in April 2021. Airbus said that launching Pleiades Neo 5 and 6 would allow it to overcome the issues with the Pleiades Neo 3 and meet all customer obligations.
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