When astrophysicist Arthur Eddington raised the Olympus of science to Albert Einstein in 1919, claiming that he had obtained “the most important result since the days of Newton”, the theory of relativity had just come into existence. Since then, experiments have been carried out to try to demonstrate this and now the Italian Space Agency (ASI) has sent a mission beyond the borders of the globe to test one of its postulates. However, not only will the result be important, but also the method used to send it.
The Lares 2 satellite, which will test the German physicist’s theory, reached orbit last Wednesday thanks to the first Vega-C rocket, launched by the European Space Agency (ESA) from the port that this organization owns in Kurú, French Guiana. On this maiden flight, this engineering gem, developed in part by Airbus in Spain, also carried six small research satellites (CubeSats) from France, Italy and Slovenia as secondary payloads.
The importance of this rocket, which incorporates technological improvements and increases its capacity compared to its previous version (Vega), lies in the increased demand for precise satellite services by the public and private sectors, but above all in its ability to guarantee European sovereignty to access space. That’s how they explain it 20 minutes jesus ortizproduct manager and technical authority for the Airbus Vega-C at Tres Cantos headquarters, and Virginie Roldanresponsible for the program within the framework of the involvement of the French company in the new rocket.
What is Vega-C?
The Vega-C is a 35-meter high rocket developed by ESA, whose main application is launch of small and medium satellites into low orbit, where they typically operate to observe and monitor the Earth with different purposes, many of which are research or telecommunications, Ortiz explains. This device has a crucial advantage over its predecessor: the increased load capacity. “Go from 1,500 to 2,200 kilos for a reference orbit of 700 kilometers sun-synchronous, which means an increase of 50%”, he explains.
“In addition, the cap (the characteristic tip of the rockets) has a greater volume, which allows it to accommodate larger satellites. All this without an increase in expenditure compared to Vega, with which it is made. a more powerful launcher at the same cost“, deepens. And in the same line Roldán expresses himself, who speaks of a project based on the philosophy design at cost“We have a better rocket with greater capacity and optimized at market priceswhich began to be very competitive due to the entry into the scene of private companies, such as SpaceX“.
In addition, the rocket has a system of engines capable of activating up to five pushes during your flight, which makes it possible to release satellites carried to different levels of orbit. The last of these Vega-C ignitions, specifies the product manager, is used to put the fourth stage of the launcher on the reentry trajectory, so that disintegrate in the atmosphere and leave no space debriswhich can be dangerous for other satellites.
Spanish brand technology
Parts of this technical ingenuity have been developed at Airbus headquarters in Spain. Thus, in the facilities that the French company has in Barajas, have developed the Avum+: the fourth stage of the rocket, located just below that which carries the satellites and containing “various flight controls and control of the launcher”. “In addition, it has a motor that places the payload in the correct position before putting it into orbit,” Roldán describes.
“We have a better rocket with greater capacity and optimized at market prices, which have become very competitive due to the entry of private companies, such as SpaceX”
Compared to its previous version (the Avum), with the new design it increase power and lighten weight, since some formerly metal structures are now made of carbon fiber. “The most advanced technology is used, thanks to the fact that at Airbus in Barajas we have long been a center of excellence for composite materials. We took advantage of this experience to improve the characteristics of this product,” he adds. .
During this period, beyond the technical complications of the project, at the Barajas headquarters they had to face some additional challenges related to the pandemic. Not only did telecommuting and the issues of transporting goods typical of the lockdown challenge these workers, but they also had to deal with the loss due to COVID of the program manager at the time, Jorge Avilato which Roldán renders a moving memory: “It was hard at that time because of the tragedy that we suffered and also because of the circumstances. We all remembered him a lot on that flightbecause he developed the product”.
For their part, in the Tres Cantos facilities, they carry out all the wiring for the upper floor and the “star product” for Vega-C: the multifunctional unit (MFU, for its acronym in English), which is electronic equipment with key functions for the launcher. “It was designed and built with off-the-shelf components, which is a technological leap from what is usually done in space. Additionally, lead-free solder is used to be more eco-sustainablewith which we anticipate future legislation where this material will be banned,” Ortiz furthers.
“This MFU is in charge of all the distribution of electrical energy for the rest of the units and has the necessary electronics to control the Avum+ engine and the management of communications between the various equipment of the launcher, as well as to fire the detonators , used for start the engine, the separation of the stages and that of the satellites“, he adds.
Why is Vega-C important?
Beyond the performance improvement, one of the main contributions of the Vega-C is the reinforcement of the independent access from the Old Continent to the sky, which will avoid having to resort to other countries. “Often we are not aware of the importance of investing in our own port and our own space fleet. However, it is vital not depending on other powers: Trump’s whim in his time, when he was about to cancel our flights, or the current situation with Russiabecause the Soyuz have left the European base and it is not possible to have their launcher”, explains Roldán.
“It is vital not to depend on the whim of Trump at the time, who was about to cancel our flights, nor on the current situation with Russia”
The spatial sovereignty privileged by this rocket translates into obvious “benefits” for Europeans, since the satellites it can put into orbit are as fundamental as Copernicus. Study climate change, monitor agricultureenhancing border protection and studying the safest routes for ships between ice at the poles are some of the “endless applications” that these devices likely to be launched by the recently launched Vega-C will promote.
In addition, this inaugural flight made it possible to check the operation of certain components of the Vega-C, such as the P-120 engine or electronic boards manufactured at Tres Cantos, which will then be used in the larger Ariane 6 launcher. This higher range rocket will fly next year and the possibility of verifying the viability of some of its parts constitutes “a boost for efficiency and industrial profitability”, according to the ESA.
And now what?
Once this first flight is successful, the next mission involving one of these launchers will take off at the end of the year and will be carried out by Airbus, since these rockets have institutional and commercial applications. Two satellites from the French firm, Pléiades Neo 5 and 6, will be put into orbit, intended to observe the Earth and take high-resolution photos, specifies Ortiz. Soon after, already in 2022, the last Vega will take off and none will be manufactured.
For its part, the Arianespace brand has already announced the contract for seven flights with the Vega-C, which is “very good news”, reveals Roldán. At the same time, alongside the start of operations with this launcher, development work is continuing and ESA is already working in the Vega-E, which will feature a simplified architecture from 2026 by replacing both the third and fourth stages of its predecessor with a new cryogenic one, while the engine will use more sustainable fuels. It will be enough to wait, as Einstein had to do with the Nobel Prize, to see the results of these efforts.