Vega rocket set for maiden voyage

Vega (Esa) Esa's Vega programme represents an investment of more than one billion euros

Europe's Vega rocket is finally set to make its maiden flight on Monday.

The 30m-tall vehicle, first conceived in the 1990s, will launch on what is termed a qualification flight from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana.

It will carry nine satellites into orbit but the object of the mission is really to prove the rocket's systems all work as designed.

Vega has been developed to assure European access to space for payload classes weighing less than 2.5 tonnes.

At the moment, these smaller satellites tend to ride converted Russian ICBMs to get into orbit and they can sometimes wait many months to get a launch slot.

Vega should allow European operators to have more control over the schedules of their space projects. It also means that the value of what it is an immensely high-tech enterprise will return to the European economy, not to foreign industry.

"Vega gives Europe the ability to launch small satellites," said Jean-Jacques Dordain, director general of the European Space Agency (Esa).

"New technologies - and in particular the miniaturisation of technologies - are making for more and more small satellites. This is particularly true of scientific satellites such as Earth observation spacecraft. So, Vega has a fantastic perspective in front of it provided we succeed," he told me.

The launch in French Guiana is scheduled to take place between 10:00 and 12:00 GMT.

Vega (Esa)
  • Vega will lift off from a refurbished pad formerly used by the Ariane 1
  • Its four stages and satellite payload are assembled on the launch site
  • Satellites will weigh from a few 10s of kg up to a maximum of 2,500kg
  • The "reference mission" is a 1.5t satellite in a 700km-high polar orbit

There will inevitably be a degree of nervousness in launch control at Kourou come lift-off time. According to statistics compiled by the Ascend aerospace consultancy, 58% (11 out of 19) of new rockets since 1990 have experienced a major anomaly on their first flight.

It is for this reason that the satellites carried on Vega's maiden voyage have all been given a "free ride".

Stefano Bianchi, Esa's Vega programme manager, explained: "Of course, we understand more about [the way rockets perform today] - we have more modellisation capability, computers, etc, but it is clear that at system level you have things you cannot test on the ground. And you have to rely on the first flight.

"You do all the verification, you take all of the margins on what is unknown, but still the first flight is always a test."

Vega is a four-stage vehicle. Its first three segments burn a solid fuel. Its fourth and final stage uses liquid propellants and can be stopped and restarted several times to get a spacecraft into just the right orbit. The stage can also bring itself out of the sky - something deemed very important these days given the rising concern over space debris.

Filament winding process New manufacturing techniques used on the Vega stages are designed to reduce cost and improve performance

A significant innovation is the way the motor cases are prepared for the first three stages employing a high-strength graphite fibre and epoxy resin.

Avio, the Italian aerospace manufacturer at the heart of the Vega project, has set up a facility where filaments of this material can be wound into the desired shape.

"The use of carbon fibre is very important and allows us to reduce cost and improve performance, because there is less weight in that ratio between the frame and the fuel," said Avio CEO Francesco Caio.

Lares (Esa) Free ride: The scientific payloads on the first flight have not had to pay any launch fees

"At the moment, we're talking about a cost of 22 million to 25 million euros for the launcher before you add in the launching costs. It is difficult to gauge how things will evolve - and it is likely to be a function of volume and overall organisation of industry and the value chain in Europe - but frankly I certainly think there is potential to drive costs down further," he told me.

Esa expects an operational Vega to be launching about twice a year, carrying mostly small scientific and government satellites.

Vega will take its place alongside its "big brother" at Kourou - the Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket, and the new medium-lift "Europeanised" Soyuz rocket that has only recently started launching from the spaceport.

With all three vehicles, Arianespace, the company that runs Kourou, will now be able to offer satellite operators a ride for any type of spacecraft to all kinds of orbit - from the low, pole-crossing orbits used by Earth observation missions, to the high, geostationary locations favoured by big telecommunications platforms.

Preparation for the launch has been pushing right up against the end of the available time window.

If Vega should need to delay its flight through this coming week because of technical concerns, it is highly likely it will be asked to stand down for a month or so.

An Ariane 5 rocket has been booked to launch Europe's third ATV cargo ship to the International Space Station (ISS) on 9 March and this mission takes precedence over all other activity at Kourou.

The frequent comings and goings at the station require a carefully co-ordinated traffic schedule and this cannot be disrupted for Vega's introduction - as important as it is.

Jonathan Amos, Science correspondent Article written by Jonathan Amos Jonathan Amos Science correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    #85 Lofstrom loop

    My mistake. The loop is intended to be built on Earth and lift itself above the atmosphere. At 1200 miles long and a mass approaching 10 million tons, the main challenge may be finding finance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    '81 Stoatwarbler
    "where's my Lofstrom loop?"

    Too expensive to lift from Earth. It would have to be built from Lunar or, better, asteroid material.
    We dont have the permanent space infrastructure yet to do a job that big.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    Hope this latest ESA design improves on the Arianne which, like a petulant Mediterranean diva, would often have a fit and explode shortly after lift-off.

    NASA, JPL, Russia and China have left Europe behind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    The new rocket will certainly help Europe and make the EU less dependent on Russian rockets. This is critical due to late Russian failures that have put into question whether the Russians have a rocket that is reliable and safe. The United States also needs to become more competitive, and have a clear goal in mind. It seems as if Europe is beginning to lead the way in space while NASA flounders.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    This is money well invested. It's good news!

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    Very cool, but rockets are still a wildly inefficient way to get into space (think of it as pointing a gun at the ground and riding the recoil to orbit)

    "We" need a better way. It's the 21st century, where's my Lofstrom loop?

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    The joint ESA-EU programmes show the EC ineffectiveness: Galileo was long delayed because the EC insisted on an absurd “private-public partnership”; GMES is in a deadlock because the EC does not fulfill its commitment to fund the operations..:

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    And I thought it was an article about rockets ;-) For those interested, the vehicles listed as failing on first launch (since 1990) by Ascend are: Ariane 5G, Ariane 5ECA, Athena 1, Brazilian VLS, Conestoga, Delta III, Falcon 1, KSLV-1, Long March 2E, Long March 3B/3C, PSLV. Sometimes, we make mistakes...

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    the EU is a political entity and its effectiveness depends on its executive arm, the European Commission (EC), which is where the troubles start: the (highly ineffective) EC is composed of second-rank politicians (who often failed in national elections) appointed directly by the national governments rather than elected... the consequences can be easily guessed…

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    About the relations between EU and ESA, the story is actually more complex than what summarised in the quoted ESA web link. The member states of ESA and EU are not the same, e.g. Switzerland is in ESA and not in the EU. ESA and EU operate independently. ESA, being an Agency, has well-defined (and measurable) objectives;

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    I get this a lot. Those with education in the Arts or Humanities see technology as magic.
    They have no conception of the time, effort and difficulty of engineering development, nor the need for prototype testing.
    George Gamov wrote that the job of a prototype was to destroy itself in a way which revealed its weaknesses. That's how you learn to get new technology right!

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    How come i can have my say on this subject and not other more controversial ones?

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    re #73 "US anti missile system tests have hardly been a study in reliability."

    And nobody expected anything else. US anti-ballistic defense systems (there's more than one layer to AMD) are work in progress, with nobody claiming that elements being tested are parts of a final design.

    On the other hand I thought we were discussing here delivery systems "with decades of proven reliability".

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    PMK, granted Russia has got a 100% failure rate with Mars, the US has around a 50% loss. Oddly, Russia did much better on the much more hostile Venus. If you must get on this whole bandwagon (to what purpose?) US anti missile system tests have hardly been a study in reliability.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    Is it just me or are there an awful lot of nit pickers here? Instead of focusing on typso’ why not get a life and focus on the message. I for one am very impressed, even with some silly mistakes by the reported/journalist/blogger. For years I have wanted to see Europe become more involved in spaced research and exploration. Hopefully this is an indicator of bigger and better things to come.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    The build method is not new and innovative. My brother worked at Hercules aerospace a sub company of Morton Thiokol making booster engines for missiles and rockets including the space shuttle using that technique. They used wrapping of carbon fiber in computer controlled machines just as they are in the picture. This may be new ESA technology but its not new overall.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    Speltman, I bow before your fine tooth comb. However, I think the ISS abbreviation is journalistically correct, as it identifies a common term much-heard on the news, and so helps orientate the casual reader. This is why it's in brackets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    #65 Knowles2 "Why Solid fuel?"

    Solid fuel can be loaded at the factory/ It needs less launch infrastructure. It saves the weight of tanks, turbopumps and plumbing. If you need a standard burn it is much cheaper than liquid fuel.
    Once up to height and speed, the liquid fuelled 4th stage fine tunes the satellite orbits, releases them and uses its remaining fuel to reenter.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    67.powermeerkat - "...............So Soyuz has had some recent problems,but over all those launches over all those decades how does reliability stack up?.

    That's the problem: those decades are gone, and with it any reliability....."

    The recent issue with Soyez (note singular issue) was not do with reliability, it was simply a cock up on the part of a human being on the ground crew.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    So Soyuz has had some recent problems,but over all those launches over all those decades how does reliability stack up?.

    That's the problem: those decades are gone, and with it any reliability.

    BTW. Wanna discuss Russian Grunt probe, which after years of preparations landed not on Mars but splashed ca 1000 km west of Chilean Patagonia?

    Or perhaps 'reliable' Bulava SLBM?


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