Avio, an Italian-based aerospace company, hasn’t been so lucky with its Vega rocket, which has always been an odd duck in the launch industry. Now, as the rocket approaches its final launch, it is missing some important components.
the European Spaceflight Newsletter reports Two of the four fuel tanks in the Vega rocket’s fourth stage — the upper stage, powered by solid fuel dimethylhydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide — disappeared earlier this year.
Now, it appears that the fuel tanks have been found. However, the news release says, the tanks were recovered in poor condition, having been crushed along with metal scraps in the landfill. It appears that someone destroyed the tanks. This is a fairly big problem for Avio, as this was scheduled to be the last Vega rocket launched, and production lines are now closed for this device.
This Vega missile is scheduled to launch 1,250 kg BIOMAS satellite For the European Space Agency, a mission that will use P-band synthetic aperture radar to assess the health of forests on Earth and determine how they are changing. The value of the satellite is more than $200 million.
It is the mission for which the Vega rocket was created. First launched in 2012, the Vega rocket has a lift capacity of just over 2 metric tons to low Earth orbit. This makes it a little more powerful than smaller rockets, but it’s not really a medium-lift vehicle. It has about one-tenth the lift capacity of a Falcon 9 rocket, for example.
One of the big problems with Vega is its price. While the vehicle’s marketing company, Arianespace, does not publicly release pricing, a Vega launch would cost approximately $35 million to $40 million. This was barely competitive a decade ago when the car debuted. Now it’s off limits with a new generation of smaller launches offering lower prices, or the more reliable Falcon 9, which costs only about 50 percent more for a much greater lift capacity.
Another challenge was reliability. The Vega rocket has suffered two failures in its last seven launches, and has a lifetime failure rate of 10 percent across 21 launches.
Avio developed the slightly larger Vega C rocket, also solid-fueled, to provide more lift and reliability at a similar price. The Vega C rocket made its successful debut in 2022. But on its second mission in December 2022, the second stage failed. The Vega C won’t return to flying until at least a year from now.
There are no great options
Due to ongoing problems with the Vega C rocket, ESA really has no other near-term domestic options for sending its BIOMASS satellite into space. The Ariane 6 rocket will not make its first launch for at least six months, has a long backlog and will at least double launch costs. It is doubtful that European officials will want to turn to SpaceX and Falcon 9 as well.
So what will Aveo do? According to European Spaceflight, officials are working on two options. The first involves the use of old fuel tanks that were designed for qualification tests of the Aveo missile more than a decade ago. There are four tanks of this type, and the company can subject two of them to rehabilitation tests, and if these tests go well, it uses the other tank for launch. Understandably, engineers have some concerns about the safety of these tanks, which in addition to their age were never intended to fly.
Another option is to modify the upper stage used by the Vega C rocket. While the Vega and Vega C upper stages have some commonalities, there are differences, and the new AVUM+ upper stage was not intended to fly on the original Vega rocket. It remains to be seen whether the European Space Agency is prepared to support the launch of its valuable satellite on such a complex rocket.
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