European Vega rocket successfully returns to flight after a year-long hiatus

Late Wednesday night, European launch provider Arianespace successfully launched its Vega rocket from French Guiana, the vehicle’s first flight in more than a year. The return-to-flight launch was a demonstration mission that sent 53 small satellites into orbit around Earth.

Originally scheduled to fly earlier this year, the launch endured multiple delays, including COVID-19 restrictions and terrible weather. Last night, after months of waiting, Vega finally took to the skies and successfully deployed every single satellite it was carrying into orbit.

The flight’s main goal was to demonstrate a new, unique launch dispenser designed by the European Space Agency and Avio, capable of deploying multiple types of satellites while on one trip to space. A key aspect of its design is that it consists of building blocks that can be taken apart and mixed and matched to fit different-sized satellites. This launch included satellites from Planet, Kepler, Swarm Technologies, and more. They will observe conditions on Earth, monitor air quality, and track ships, among other tasks. Future launches could include an even more varied payload.

“Our dispenser is unique because it is very flexible, and you can adapt to different missions,” Stella Guillen, vice president of sales and marketing for Arianespace, tells The Verge. “You can carry different sizes of satellites from [standardized] CubeSats to micro-satellites. You can actually take it apart and put it on different missions.”

Part of the dispenser on Vega’s launch
Image: Arianespace

Since it can be broken down, the dispenser will allow Arianespace to fly CubeSats or microsatellites on upcoming missions that would have normally had just one or two satellites on board. Ultimately, Arianespace hopes to fly full ride-share missions like the Vega launch a couple of times each year.

It’s been more than a year since the Vega rocket has seen space. In July 2019, the rocket experienced some kind of problem just two minutes into launch after its two stages separated and its upper stage ignited. The failure destroyed the rocket and the military satellite it was carrying. Ultimately, Arianespace concluded that there was a structural failure in part of the second stage’s motor. Up until then, Vega had a 100 percent success rate, but the failure prompted insurance rates for satellite missions to increase.

Now that Vega is flying again, Arianespace hopes that the rocket will become something of a Goldilocks ride-share option for small satellite operators. There are multiple ways to get tiny satellites into space right now, either by hitching rides on much larger rockets such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 or ULA’s Atlas V — or by launching on a dedicated small rocket like Rocket Lab’s Electron. Those options have their benefits and their drawbacks. “If you have a bigger vehicle that has a lot of space, which will allow you to have good pricing, you have to pack a lot of satellites in there and you have to send everybody to the same orbit, which doesn’t give you much flexibility if you want to go to a different altitude, for example,” Guillen says. “At the same time, if you’re too little, if it is on a dedicated flight, it could be very expensive.”

Guillen notes that medium-sized Vega will still allow for lots of satellites to ride at one time, helping to minimize cost. She also says that a future, more powerful version of Vega, called Vega-C, will be able to do some boost maneuvers in flight, allowing the vehicle to drop satellites off at different orbits if necessary. Vega is also one of two options that Arianespace customers have. The company’s other vehicle is the Ariane 5, soon to be upgraded to the Ariane 6, which is used to launch much heavier missions to higher orbits. “I think together the two new launch vehicles in Vega-C and the Ariane 6 complement each other very well so that we can basically launch any size to any orbit at any time,” says Guillen. “I think it’s a very, very unique situation for us.”

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