ESA’s new Vega-C rocket made its maiden flight on July 13, placing the main payload LARES-2 – a science mission of the Italian Space Agency (ASI) – into its planned orbit. Six research CubeSats from France, Italy and Slovenia were also carried as secondary payloads.
The launch is the culmination of a multi-year effort by ESA, prime contractor Avio and industrial partners from thirteen ESA Member States who built on the legacy of its predecessor, Vega.
Flight VV21 took off from the European Spaceport in French Guiana at 10:13 a.m. from Kourou. This mission lasted approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes, from liftoff to final payload release and final AVUM+ upper stage engine burn-out.
The total take-off payload mass was approximately 474 kg: 296 kg for the LARES-2 and the rest for the six CubeSats, the payload adapters and the transport structures.
Vega-C has vastly superior capabilities to Vega, which has been in business since 2012. With the new first and second stages and the improved fourth stage, Vega-C increases the performance of Vega’s 1.5 tons to approximately 2.3 tons in a reference polar orbit of 700 km.
Additionally, Vega-C incorporates a new, more powerful first stage, the P120C, based on Vega’s P80. 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+ has increased liquid burn capability to deliver payloads to multiple orbits depending on mission requirements and to enable longer run times in space, thereby enabling longer missions.
The P120C engine will perform a double function, with two or four units acting as coupled thrusters for Ariane 6. Sharing this component improves the industrial efficiency and improves the profitability of the two launchers.
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.
The precise orbital path of LARES-2 it will be tracked by laser from ground stations. The objective is to measure the effect of “reference frame drag”, 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.
Note that Airbus in Spain provides several elements that make up these new rockets:
The Madrid-Barajas Airbus Center builds the structure of the launcher’s fourth stage, also called AVUM+. It is the last stage of the rocket and it is responsible for bringing the satellites into their corresponding orbit and releasing them at the right time. On the other hand, it will design and manufacture, on request, dispensers for the multiple launch of satellites in a single flight. The company carries out the activities of integrating the satellites into the launcher, sending personnel to Guayana for this launch.
For its part, The Airbus center in Tres Cantos, develops electronic equipment for the launcher. It is a key unit for the launcher, the 4th stage wiring and all the wiring of the 1553 launcher. These elements guarantee, among other things, the power distribution, the control of the actuators and the management of the communications of the launcher . Likewise, it carries out system activities, including the management of the Electromagnetic Compatibility (EMC) qualification campaign.
AVUM+ for the new VEGA-C launcher
Increasing freight capacity and controlling costs were precisely the main threads during the design and construction of the new AVUM+ stage for Airbus Spain. The new structure is an evolution of the AVUM that the Spanish factory had designed and manufactured for VEGA. It is basically composed of the same structures, but introducing a redesign to meet customer requirements, such as changing some metal skin sandwich panels to CFRP (Carbon Fiber Reinforced Plastic). The loads are much higher in VEGA-C, especially the radial load in the tanks, keeping the same weight of the structure, quite a technical challenge.
The AVUM+ (Attitude and Vernier Upper Module Plus), is 1.87m high and 1.95m in diameter. Like its predecessor, it represents the 4th stage of the launcher, and allows, in the ballistic phase of the mission, to place the payload in the appropriate position before releasing it. Its engine can be restarted up to five times, allowing it to reach different orbits in multiple payload flights.
The upper set of panels housed the tanks, avionics and stage engine. Below, there is a metal body composed of two cylinders, which contain the hydrazine tank and the pressurization gas tank (GN2). Between the two cylinders, a separation system made up of a pyrotechnic rope and a set of springs makes it possible to separate the stage at the moment indicated by the mission profile, before starting the engine of this for the first time. fourth floor.
The first flight model of the AVUM+ structure built by Airbus – Space Systems in Spain was delivered to the customer on May 22, 2020 at AVIO’s facilities in Colleferro (Italy). Delivery and transport were a challenge, due to the difficulties linked to the health alert situation due to Covid-19.
This step is the first of a new series entrusted by AVIO to Airbus Spain, for the small European launcher VEGA-C.
Thanks to the restart capability of VEGA-C, different satellites can be launched into different orbits. When two or more satellites are launched, distributors are used.
They are carbon fiber structures to lighten their weight. It has two housings: the first satellite is integrated into the distributor and the second is placed in the upper part. They are responsible for maintaining the satellites during launch and include a separation system to inject them into the desired orbit at the desired time.
They are considered mission critical because they cannot be redundant and must work first time, known as “point failure”. The Madrid-Barajas teams are in charge of integrating the satellites in the distributor, in French Guiana.
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.