European Space Agency's Vega-C rocket a step closer to returning to flight

Latest nozzle redesign means a late 2024 launch is on the cards

The European Space Agency (ESA) is getting closer to returning its Vega-C rocket to flight following a successful test by the prime contractor, Avio, at its Italian test facility.

Zefiro-40 horizontal rocket test

Zefiro-40 horizontal rocket test – Image (c) Avio

The Vega-C was grounded following a mishap in December 2022. In 2023, ESA announced the cause: a gradual deterioration in the nozzle of the Zefiro-40 solid rocket motor used for the second stage of the Vega-C.

The failure, coupled with the retirement of the Ariane 5, has meant ESA has had to use other vendors, such as SpaceX, to launch its spacecraft in the absence of a domestic capability.

One last flight of an earlier iteration of the Vega, which doesn't use the Zefiro-40 rocket, remains. In December it was announced that a pair of fuel tanks for the rocket had been misplaced, but managers are now confident of a launch in late summer.

Things aren't so simple for the Vega-C. The team redesigned the nozzle following the loss of the vehicle, but problems cropped up in testing towards the end of 2023, pushing a return-to-flight date deep into 2024.

According to Avio, the good news for managers is that an improved nozzle design performed as expected during a 94-second test that simulated "a nominal in-flight performance."

Another test is planned for October, and if all goes well, the Zefiro-40 solid rocket motor will be qualified and ready for a return to flight at the end of 2024.

The Vega-C is intended to replace the Vega, so a return to flight at the end of 2024 would be convenient timing. The launcher can place approximately 2,300 kg into a polar orbit and will plug the capability gap left by the loss of Russian launchers following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The Zefiro-40 itself is a 7.6 meter tall rocket motor loaded with more than 36 tons of solid propellant.

While the Vega-C inches closer to returning to flight, Europe's heavy-lift launcher, the Ariane 6, is finally set to make its maiden flight in July 2024. ®

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