ESA's Vega rocket crashes and burns after fourth-stage nozzle failure sinks two satellites

Second failure in last three missions doesn't inspire confidence


The European Space Agency (ESA) and Arianespace have commissioned an inquiry into the failure of a Vega rocket that crashed on Tuesday, destroying a pair of Earth monitoring satellites built by French and Spanish researchers.

The rocket blasted off from the Guiana Space Center on Tuesday at 0252 UTC. Eight minutes later, after the ignition of its fourth stage, a deviation of trajectory was identified and the mission was lost.

Initial diagnoses suggests the stage failed due to a suspected "problem related to the integration of the fourth-stage AVUM nozzle activation system."

Both satellites aboard the rocket were lost. One was named SEOSAT–Ingenio and was Spain’s first optical imaging satellite. The other was named Taranis and was a French mission to observe thunderstorms from above. The rocket and its cargo fell to Earth in a safe crash zone away from human habitation.

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Eight minutes from doom. Source: ESA. Click to enlarge

“My thoughts are with all teams ... for their hard work on the two lost satellites,” said ESA Director General Jan Wörner.

“I will personally make sure that we fully understand the root cause, but also that we bring Vega back to the robustness and reliability of service it has shown since its first launch in 2012.”

Arianespace, which builds and operates the Vega launcher, confirmed it has started telemetry data analysis to determine the cause of the disaster.

The crash is the second recent Vega rocket accident: in July 2019 another launch carrying a satellite for the United Arab Emirates malfunctioned over the Atlantic Ocean and fell into the water.

Arianespace temporarily paused its Vega launches after that incident but staged a successful launch in September 2020.

Now the rocket-maker is again pondering a failure, and perhaps also whether it needs to return to the drawing board. ®


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