WASHINGTON — The second flight of Arianespace’s Vega C failed to reach orbit Dec. 20 after its second stage malfunctioned, destroying two Pléiades Neo imaging satellites.
The Vega C rocket lifted off at 8:47 p.m. east from Kourou, French Guiana, carrying Pléiades Neo 5 and 6 imaging satellites for Airbus. Takeoff was on schedule and the initial phases of the flight appeared to be proceeding as planned.
However, on-screen telemetry showed that the missile deviated from its planned trajectory within four minutes of launch, during the burnout of the rocket’s Zefiro-40 second stage. Arianespace said in a later statement that the stage malfunctioned 2 minutes and 27 seconds after liftoff, seconds after the stage ignited.
Flight continued for several minutes, including separation of the second stage and ignition of the third stage, as well as separation of the payload fairing, even as the stage reached an apogee of 110 km and began to descend.
“After liftoff and nominal ignition of P120C, which is Vega’s first stage, a vacuum was observed in Zefiro-40, which is Vega’s second stage,” said Stéphane Israël, CEO of Arianespace. he said at the start of the webcast a few minutes later. “After this depressurization, we have observed the deviation of the orbit and very strong anomalies, so unfortunately we can say that the mission is lost.”
He did not elaborate on the problem. “We will now have to work with all our partners to better understand why the Zefiro-40 malfunctioned tonight, causing the mission to fail,” he said, apologizing to Airbus Defense and Space, the launch customer. Arianespace then ended the launch on the web.
The launch was the second for Vega C following a successful maiden launch of the rocket on July 13 carrying a set of institutional payloads. This was the first commercial launch of the Vega C. The launch was delayed from late November due to a fireworks problem in the payload fairing separation system.
The Vega C is an upgraded version of the Vega missile with increased payload performance. Among the changes is the introduction of the Zefiro-40 solid fuel second stage, which replaced the less powerful Zefiro-23 used in the Vega. Avio is the lead contractor for the Vega C.
Vega suffered two failures in three launches in 2019 and 2020. A 2019 Vega launch of the UAE’s Falcon Eye 1 imaging satellite failed due to a problem with the thermal protection system on part of the rocket’s second stage. A Vega launch in November 2020 failed when the Avum upper stage collapsed shortly after ignition due to what Arianespace later determined were improperly connected cables.
Vega C’s failure deals another blow to European efforts to maintain launch autonomy. Vega C has been one of the cornerstones of this strategy, along with the still-in-development Ariane 6, with the European Union awarding Arianespace a contract on November 29 for five launches of Vega C Sentinel satellites. This contract took the Vega C backlog to 13 launches, along with two remaining launches of the original Vega.
The launch failure also hurts Airbus, which had been counting on the launch to add to its constellation of high-resolution imaging satellites. The Pléiades Neo 5 and 6 were similar to the previously released Pléiades Neo 3 and 4, but included laser links for faster image transmission. An unspecified “equipment problem” with the Pléiades Neo 3 led Airbus to file a partial insurance claim after its launch in April 2021. Airbus said the launch of the Pléiades Neo 5 and 6 will allow it to resolve the problems with the Pléiades Neo 3 and fulfill all its customer commitments.