Lift off: ESA’s Vega C rocket sets out on maiden flight

13 Jul 2022

The Vega C lifts off from Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. Image: ESA

Vega C will deliver seven satellites into different orbits, showcasing the versatility of the new ESA launcher.

After some initial delays, the European Space Agency (ESA) Vega C rocket has successfully completed its first launch, giving Europe a new multipurpose launcher for orbital missions.

The launch was set for 12.13pm Irish time today (13 July), but automatic response issues caused two delays. The rocket eventually launched at 2.13pm from the ESA spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

This marks the first mission for the four-stage Vega C, which is significantly more powerful than its predecessor Vega rocket. It is also designed to be more affordable overall than the original Vega, with an improved re-ignitable upper stage.

The new rocket can haul a payload of up to 2.3 tons to a polar orbit around 700km above Earth, compared to Vega’s 1.5 tons.

The P120C motor of the rocket will do a double service, as either two or four units will act as strap-on boosters for the Ariane 6 heavy launcher, which is set to launch in 2023. The ESA said sharing this component streamlines industrial efficiency and improves the cost effectiveness of both launchers.

For its inaugural flight, Vega C’s payload is the Lares-2 satellite developed by the Italian Space Agency, along with six miniature satellites known as cubesats.

The ESA confirmed in a briefing on 7 July that there are currently 14 launches planned with the Vega C rocket up to 2025.

The ESA member states participating in Vega-C are Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

The first mission

Vega C’s first mission is designed to showcase the versatility of the launcher, as it is bringing seven objects into different orbits during a single launch.

The main cargo is the Laras-2 satellite, which weighs a hefty 295kg.

A group of scientists in a warehouse constructing a satellite. It is the Lares-2.

The Lares-2 satellite. Image: ESA/Manuel Pedoussaut

Once in orbit, the precise path of the Laras-2 satellite will be tracked by laser from ground stations. The satellite’s mission is to measure the ‘frame-dragging effect’, which is a distortion of space time caused by the rotation of a massive body such as Earth.

The secondary payload is the six cubesats, three of which are designed to study the effects of a harsh radiation environment on electronic systems. The other three cubesats have different objectives.

The AstroBio cubesat will test a solution for detecting biomolecules in space. The Greencube satellite carries an experiment to grow plants in microgravity, while the Alpha cubesat seeks to better understand phenomena related to the magnetosphere, such as the Northern Lights.

European space autonomy

One key improvement the Vega C has over its predecessor is a flexibility in the missions it can assist. The launcher can bring larger satellites into orbit, two main payloads or can accommodate various arrangements for ride-share missions.

ESA director of space transportation Daniel Neuenschwander said Vega C will work alongside the planned Ariane 6 heavy lifter to give Europe autonomy in its launch capabilities.

“With Vega-C and Ariane 6, Europe will have a flexible, independent solution for a fast-changing launch market,” he added. “These two systems are the foundation of a development plan that will serve European institutions and commercial partners, opening a new chapter of European services.”

The flexibility of Vega C is also expected to benefit the growing Earth observation market. This involves the gathering of information about Earth’s physical, chemical and biological systems, usually through the use of satellite imaging.

This data is used in various areas of society such as agriculture, forestry, spatial planning, infrastructure and development. It is also useful in dealing with global issues such as natural disasters and the climate emergency.

“It really brings an added value, added services to the citizens and the life of every woman and man on this small blue planet, and with that I think it is very well invested money,” Neuenschwander said.

The Vega C will also be used to launch Space Rider, an uncrewed robotic laboratory designed to be Europe’s first fully reusable return-to-Earth vehicle.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic