After a slight delay to schedule, ESA’s new Vega-C rocket was successfully launched this Wednesday from the European spaceport of Kurú, French Guiana, at 3:13 p.m. (Spanish peninsula time).
This maiden flight, called VV21, took about 2 hours and 15 minutes from liftoff to payload release and upper stage engine burnout.
The main payload was LARES-2, the Italian Space Agency (ASI) science mission satellite which was placed in its planned orbit. Six research CubeSats from France, Italy and Slovenia were also carried as secondary payloads.
The total take-off payload mass was approximately 474 kg: 296 kg for the LARES-2 and the rest for the CubeSats, payload adapters and transport structures.
Vega-C boasts significantly higher capacities than its predecessor, Vega, which has been in service since 2012. With new first and second stages and an improved fourth stage, Vega-C increases the performance of Vega from 1.5 tons to approximately 2.3 tons in a reference polar orbit of 700 km.
The new launcher incorporates a more powerful first stage, the P120C, based on Vega’s P80. This is a new motor that will provide dual duty, with two or four units acting as coupled propellers for the future. Ariadne 6. Sharing this component improves the industrial efficiency and improves the profitability of the two launchers.
Above is a new second stage, Zefiro-40, and below is the same Zefiro-9 third stage used on Vega.
The reusable upper stage is also improved: AVUM+, which has increased liquid burn capability to deliver payloads to multiple orbits depending on mission requirements and to allow for longer runtime in space, thus making the missions longer.
Comparison of the veteran Vega rocket, the current Vega-C and the future Vega-E. / THIS
With larger main stages and a bigger fairing, which doubles the payload volume compared to Vega, Vega-C is 34.8 meters tall, nearly five meters taller than Vega.
The new launcher configuration offers a significant improvement in launch system flexibility. Vega-C can launch larger satellites, two primary payloads, or support various arrangements for rideshare missions. ESA’s next Space Rider Earth Return Vehicle will be launched into orbit with Vega-C.
ESA’s Director of Space Transportation, Daniel Neuenschwander, responsible for overseeing launch operations from the Mission Control Center at the Spaceport, said: “Today we are ushering in a new era of European launch solutions, starting with Vega-C and will be completed by Ariane 6”.
The precise orbital path of LARES-2 will be tracked by lasers from ground stations. The objective is to measure the effect of “drag of the reference frame”, a distortion of space-time caused by the rotation of a huge body like the Earth, as predicted by Einstein in his theory of general relativity. Its predecessor, the similar LARES, was the primary payload on Vega’s maiden flight in 2012.
Six CubeSats formed a secondary payload assembly. AstroBio CubeSat (Italy) will test a solution to detect biomolecules in space. Greencube (Italy) is conducting a plant cultivation experiment in microgravity. ALPHA (Italy) aims to help understand phenomena related to the Earth’s magnetosphere, such as the aurora borealis and australis.
Three other CubeSats, Trisat-R (Slovenia), MTCube-2 (France) and Celesta (France) will study the effects of a severe radiation environment on electronic systems.
The future Vega-E is on the way
Alongside the start of Vega-C operations, development work continues. Another variant, Vega-E, will offer a simplified architecture from 2026 by replacing both the third and fourth stages of Vega-C with a new cryogenic upper stage. The key to Vega-E is the M10 engine, made in Europe, which uses more environmentally sustainable fuels – cryogenic liquid oxygen and methane – and also has an advanced pressure control system that allows multiple stops and restarts in space. The main contractor, Avio, has just completed its first series of fire tests.
VV21 was managed by ESA, owner of the Vega-C program and overseeing its development. This inaugural flight paves the way for the start of operations by Arianespace and Avio.
Following the success of Vega, Member States agreed at the ESA Ministerial Meeting in December 2014 to develop the more powerful Vega-C to meet changing market and institutional needs over the long term. ESA Member States participating in the Vega-C program are Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Romania , Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.