Launch failure: the Taranis satellite is lost

Launch failure: the Taranis satellite is lost
Launch failure: the Taranis satellite is lost

It should have taken off last night at 3 am (Paris time) from the Guyanese space center in Kourou, aboard a small European Vega rocket. It should have gone into orbit at an altitude of 670 kilometers to study the electrical phenomena that occur above thunderstorms, “transient light phenomena”, discovered in the 1990s and still poorly understood. It was an entirely French space mission, and of tremendous scientific interest. But the Taranis mission is lost.

Read also Taranis, the mission that should have plunged into the hidden face of storms

Path deviation

“Eight minutes after take-off from the Vega VV17 mission, following the ignition of the engine of the upper Avum stage, a deviation of the path was identified, resulting in the loss of the mission.” Everything we know for the moment is summarized in this terse announcement from Arianespace, the company responsible for operating and marketing the European Ariane and Vega rockets.

Anatomy of a Vega rocket. According to Arianespace

It is therefore in the upper part of the launcher that the problem started. Previously, the first stage, then the second, then the third all correctly emptied their fuel tanks for two to three minutes each, passing the baton and falling back into the atmosphere one after the other. After eight minutes of flight, only the top of Vega remained: a module named Avum, containing the equipment compartment (with the electrical and electronic systems for the control of the flight), a small engine responsible for making the final adjustments trajectory to obtain the desired orbit, and the payload. This Tuesday, November 17, Vega took two passengers – a Spanish Earth observation satellite (SEOSAT-Ingenio) and the French microsatellite Taranis.

The first seconds of launch, before the malfunction.

“Analyzes of telemetry data are underway to determine the cause of this failure”, says Arianespace. A press conference will be given at the beginning of the afternoon to give a first update on the progress of the investigation.

Second failure

The light launcher, largely developed by the Italian space agency, is definitely going through a very bad patch. After fourteen successful launches since its qualifying flight in 2012, Vega has already missed its flight number 15 in July 2019. The rocket was to launch Falcon Eye 1, an optical reconnaissance satellite of the United Arab Emirates. But two minutes after takeoff, when the second stage engine had just ignited, “A sudden and violent event occurred in the engine”, as the findings of the investigation report, and the rocket shattered: the second stage on one side, the rest of the vehicle on the other. The trajectory was ruined, and the destruction of the vehicle was ordered by the control center.

The United Arab Emirates have received a record $ 415 million (350 million euros) in insurance for the loss of their satellite, and changed their plans by canceling the planned launch of Falcon Eye 2, twin of the lost satellite with whom it had to work in concert… At least on a Vega, as was initially planned. Falcon Eye 2 was finally handed over to a more expensive and statistically more reliable Russian Soyuz rocket, which should take off at the end of November.

For its part, the operation of Vega was put on hold for fourteen long months following this incident, the time to shed light on its causes and make the necessary corrections before retrying a take-off (without forgetting several postponements linked to the Covid-19 pandemic). Vega finally regained its launch pad in September 2020, sending a whole bunch of 53 small satellites into orbit – seven microsats weighing between 15 and 150 kilos, and forty-six nanosatellites (CubeSats). ESA and the Ariane group welcomed this successful return to flight which at the same time validated a “New shared launch service”, commercially attractive, perhaps ushering in a new boom for the small rocket while waiting for its successor.

While waiting for Vega-C

Vega-C should take over with a first flight in 2021. More powerful than the first Vega of the name, this rocket “Will allow an additional 700 kg to be loaded as well as a greater volume in a larger fairing at a cost similar to that of Vega, promises ESA. This will allow even more passengers to board a shared flight and therefore significantly lower the cost per kilogram. ”

Camille Gevaudan

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