Vega Rocket: Human Error Caused Mission Failure

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A Vega rocket takes off in September 2020

SPACE: The vega rocket deviated from its path eight minutes after takeoff

The young European rocket Vega suffered the second failure in its history on Tuesday by losing the two satellites it carried just after takeoff, due to a problem during the manufacture of the launcher, assembled in Italy.

Eight minutes after a successful takeoff from the Kourou space centre in French Guiana, Monday at 10:52 p.m. local time (Tuesday at 2:52 a.m. Paris time), the launcher’s trajectory deteriorated, and the mission failed, without being able to place in orbit its payload. This is the second time in two years that Vega, light launcher presented as Ariadne’s “little sister”, has suffered a serious setback, after a failure in the summer of 2019 which had led to its destruction, as a precaution.

A “series” of human errors

Tuesday’s incident has, however “nothing to do” with the first failure, because this time the error “does not come from the design, but from the production”, explained the CEO of Arianespace, Stéphane Israël, during a press conference from Kourou.

This is a “cable inversion” problem, which occurred during the launcher manufacturing stage, the elements of which are integrated at the Avio site, near Rome in Italy. “It’s a quality problem, a series of human errors,” explained Roland Lagier, technical director of Arianespace.

Arianespace and the European Space Agency (ESA) will set up on Wednesday an independent commission of inquiry, responsible for “definitively validating the scenario identified and highlighting the reasons why this integration error was not detected then corrected ”.

Three lost satellites

“We will correct, and we will come back stronger,” assured the CEO of Arianespace, who apologized to the customers and builders of the lost satellites: a Spanish Earth observation satellite, SEOSAT-Ingenio, and a French storm physics exploration satellite, Taranis, on behalf of CNES, the French space agency. The program for the next three Arianespace launches by the end of the year, via Russian Soyuz rockets, remains unchanged, said Stéphane Israël.

The anomaly occurred on the fourth stage of the launcher – the upper stage, Avum – which carries the payload. “Everything went as planned during the first part of the flight, and it was when the fourth floor was lit that we lost control,” said Roland Lagier. The launcher fell back into the sea, far from any inhabited area, the group said.

A still young rocket

This was the second mission of the year for Vega, which had a “difficult 2020 year” (2 launches against 4 planned), Marino Fragnito, Vega’s director of the executive committee, told AFP on Monday. Arianespace, in reference to the Covid-19 epidemic and particularly unfavourable weather in Guyana that led to many postponements of the first flight.

This was to be the 17th launch in the history of this light rocket. Before its first failure in 2019, it had had fourteen consecutive successes since the start of its operation in 2012. “We are still in the youth of this launcher, unfortunately, these failures happen,” underlined Stéphane Israël, recalling previous incidents. with Ariane.

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