Vega VV14 launch. Image: Arianespace

Over a year after the failed launch of the FalconEye 1 satellite for the United Arab Emirates, Arianespace is ready to return its Vega launch vehicle to operational status. The flight was originally planned for earlier this year but after multiple scrubs due to winds, Arianespace decided to postpone it until a period of more favorable seasonal weather conditions.

July 10, 2019 saw the Vega rocket leap from it’s pad at the Guiyana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana. The first stage lit up the night sky as Vega’s first stage burned through its 88 tons of solid propellant with no problems. Stage separation and ignition was set to occur about 2 minutes after liftoff. At around T+2:15, the live coverage switched to an animation of the vehicle, a world map showing its position and a plot showing altitude and downrange distance. It was at this point that keen-eyed viewers began to wonder if something was wrong.

It began with the plot on the screen. A nominal launch would show a yellow line, the real-time data, being drawn over a green line, the expected data. It was barely noticeable at first, but as the seconds ticked away, the lines parted. Then came the views of the launch controllers. Facial expressions changed, headsets were removed, phones were picked up and calls were being made. The crowd who stepped outside to see the launch were still filing back in to the auditorium overlooking the control room, probably unaware that anything was amiss. The launch commentator continued on for a bit as if all was ok. The coverage switches to a quick video about the Vega with the clock still ticking in the upper corner.

When coverage resumed just after T+6:00, there were no more graphics on screen and the commentator struggles to convey a loss of telemetry. Then a crawler bar appears. Something has definitely gone wrong. Finally, at T+9 minutes, Luce Fabreguettes, the EVP of Missions, Operations & Purchasing for Arianespace takes the podium in the auditorium to formally announce the loss of vehicle and payload, tearfully. She promised more information soon and an investigation.

The result of that investigation found that the structure of the first stare failed where it meets the second stage by allowing hot burning propellant to flow through and crippling the rest of the vehicle. Arianespace was quick to own its failure, quick to find it and quick to fix it. 1 year later they believe they have it fixed and are ready to try again.

This return to flight mission will see a rideshare mission delivering small satellites for 21 different customers from 13 countries with a wide array of uses. And as for the original payload? Arianespace is going to replace the lost satellite, as is customary in the industry. However this time, the customer has asked for the payload to launch on a Soyuz. That launch is pencilled in for sometime in 2020, with no date set yet.

As of this writing, Arianespace is targeting August 17th for the return to flight mission of the Vega rocket. As with almost all of their launches, a livestream will be provided through the official Arianespace YouTube channel and links will be provided through their social media accounts as the launch draws closer.

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