Italy’s Vega rockets are on hold while officials look into a failed launch.
The Vega C rocket from Italy will become more and more important to Europe’s ability to go to space.
Italy’s Vega rockets have been put on hold, and an investigation is under way after the latest model failed on its second mission, destroying two Earth-imaging satellites and making it harder for Europe to get into space on top of the war in Ukraine.
On Wednesday, the launch company Arianespace said that two minutes and 27 seconds after the upgraded Vega C left the pad in French Guiana, there was a “serious anomaly.” This made it impossible to add two satellites to the Pleiades Neo constellation, which is run by Airbus (AIR.PA).
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“Unfortunately, we can say that the mission failed, and I’m very sorry,” said Stephane Israel, the CEO of Arianespace, in a video feed of the launch that was watched on space.com.
A spokesperson for Arianespace said that both the Vega C and its predecessor, the Vega, had been put on hold while a group of technical experts from the European Space Agency and Arianespace looked into what went wrong.
Israel told reporters that the commission would talk to outside experts and come up with “strong and long-lasting corrective actions” to make sure the planes could fly again safely and reliably.
After Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, which forced Arianespace to stop using Russian Soyuz vehicles, Italy’s Vega C rocket will play an even more important role in getting Europeans into space.
Up until now, Europe has been using the Vega programme for small missions, the Soyuz programme for medium missions, and the Ariane programme for heavy missions.
Adolfo Urso, Italy’s Minister of Industry, said that he was “fully confident that the launches will resume soon,” but he didn’t say why he was so sure.
But Arianespace has had to cancel its plans to announce a Vega C launch schedule for 2023 in the next few weeks.
The company said that the second stage of Vega C, which is called Zefiro-40, lost pressure after it was turned on. This is what made engineers send a “destruction” command and send the launcher and its high-tech payload safely into the Atlantic.
Shares of Avio (AVI.MI), which designed and built most of the rocket, including the Zefiro-40 stage, fell as much as 11% in Milan after the failure of Vega C’s first commercial mission and its second flight since its successful maiden voyage in July.
The failure of the rocket is the latest problem for Europe’s space planners, who have already had to deal with the withdrawal of Russia’s Soyuz and delays to the launch of the new Ariane 6 rocket and the ExoMars rover.
It comes just a few weeks after the European Space Agency changed the plans for three Soyuz launches, including the move of the Europe-Japan EarthCARE satellite to the Vega C rocket with a launch date of early 2024.
Now, its plans are again uncertain because Europe may have gaps, first because of geopolitical issues and then because of technical issues.
Analysts said there are only a few operational alternatives to Vega C, such as possible ride-sharing on SpaceX’s larger Falcon 9 or Firefly Aerospace’s new Alpha launcher, which can lift about half of Vega C’s payload weight.
Other options include rockets from Japan and India, which are a bit bigger than Vega C.
Arianespace’s Israel stressed that the latest incident did not affect Ariane 5 or 6.
The first two Pleaides Neo satellites were launched in 2021, and the two that went missing on Vega C were supposed to finish a constellation that could take images with a resolution of 30 cm for both civilian and military use.
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Insurance experts said that the loss of the two satellites had put a damper on what had looked like a good year for companies that cover satellite risks.
David Todd, head of space content at analysis firm Seradata, said that the two satellites were insured for a total of 212 million euros ($224.9 million).
Airbus wouldn’t say anything because it owns and runs the Pleaides constellation.