Two Pléiades Neo Earth-imaging satellites lost in failure of Europe’s Vega C rocket – Spaceflight Now


Illustration of the Vega C missile firing the Zefiro 40 second stage. Credit: Arianespace

The last two spacecraft in Airbus’ four-satellite, $600 million commercial Pléiades Neo Earth observation fleet crashed into the Atlantic Ocean shortly after launch from French Guiana on Tuesday night, falling victim to the failure of a European Vega C rocket.

Arianespace, the launch operator of the Vega C rocket, confirmed that the mission had failed to launch the two Pléiades Neo optical imaging satellites into orbit. The preliminary focus of the malfunction investigation was on the second stage of the Vega C missile.

The 114-foot-tall (34.8 meters) rocket lifted off from the Guyana Space Center at 8:47:31 p.m. EST Tuesday (0147:31 GMT Wednesday) carrying the Pléiades Neo 5 and 6 Earth-imaging satellites for Airbus Defense and Space . The goal was a polar sun-synchronous orbit.

The powerful solid-fuel P120C booster of the Vega C’s first stage burned for nearly two and a half minutes, producing a million pounds of thrust to accelerate the rocket into the upper atmosphere. Heading north from the South American coastline, the rocket jettisoned its spent first-stage motor housing and fired a Zefiro 40 second-stage motor to continue its ascent to space.

But Arianespace said in a press release that the rocket ran into trouble about 2 minutes and 27 seconds after launch, right at the start of the Zefiro 40 engine firing.

“After launch and nominal ignition of P120C, Vega’s first stage, a negative pressure was observed on Zefiro 40, Vega’s second stage,” said Stéphane Israel, CEO of Arianespace. And after this depression, we observed a deviation from the trajectory and a very strong anomaly. Unfortunately, we can say that the mission is lost.”

Telemetry from the missile showed that the vehicle lost speed about three and a half minutes into flight, when the Zefiro 40 engine should have propelled the Vega C to higher speeds. The rocket appeared to reach a peak altitude of about 360,000 feet, or 110 kilometers. Tracking data indicated the rocket re-entered the atmosphere over the Atlantic Ocean, with the final reading showing Vega C about 570 miles (917 kilometers) north of the spaceport before likely breaking apart from heating and aerodynamic forces.

“I want to apologize to our client, Pléiades Neo and Airbus Defense and Space, for this failure tonight,” Israel said. “And we will now need to work with all our partners to better understand why the Zefiro 40 failed to work properly tonight, causing the mission to fail.”

Europe’s Vega C rocket on the launch pad in French Guiana, hours before the launch of the doomed mission involving the Pléiades Neo 5 and 6 satellites. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace/JM Guillon

The second stage of the Zefiro 40, like the other solid-fuel booster stages of the Vega C, is produced by the rocket’s main contractor, the Italian aerospace company Avio. The second-stage engine is designed to burn its 40-tonne (36-tonne) supply of prepackaged solid propellant in about 90 seconds.

Tuesday night’s launch marked the first commercial flight of Europe’s upgraded Vega C rocket, following the Vega C’s flawless inaugural test flight on July 13.

The Vega C missile replaces the solid fuel first and second stages of the old Vega missile with wider, heavier engine cases. The third stage motor is unchanged and the liquid fuel restartable fourth stage has the same type of motor but has more propellant. The upgraded Vega C is larger than the original Vega rocket configuration and features a larger fairing from Swiss company Beyond Gravity, formerly known as RUAG Space.

The wider Zefiro 40 second stage on the Vega C rocket replaces the Zefiro 23 engine on the base model Vega rocket, adding 50% more solid propellant and generating 293,000 pounds of thrust.

The European Vega family of missiles has now experienced three failures in 22 flights. The three failures occurred during the last eight launches of the Vega launcher, following 14 consecutive successful flights since the Vega launcher entered service in 2012.

Researchers blamed a 2019 launch accident on a “thermo-structural failure” on the Zefiro 23 second stage of the Vega rocket. A launch failure in 2020 was traced to misplaced cables on the Vega rocket’s liquid-propelled upper stage, called the Attitude and Vernier Upper Module.

The Vega rocket had amassed four consecutive successful launches, including the debut of the Vega C, before Tuesday night’s doomed mission.

The satellites lost on the Vega C rocket were the third and fourth spacecraft in a quartet of Airbus-built and owned Earth observation satellites. The first two Pléiades Neo satellites launched in 2021 on separate Vega rockets, but Airbus put the constellation’s third and fourth spacecraft on the same mission to take advantage of the Vega C rocket’s heavier payload.

File photo of a Zefiro 40 second stage motor stacking prior to the first Vega C launch. Credit:
ESA Manuel Pedoussaut

The Pléiades Neo satellites are an improvement over Airbus’ two first-generation Pléiades Earth observation satellites launched in 2011 and 2012. Airbus says it fully funded the development of the Pléiades Neo satellites, with the intention of selling the images commercially to private companies and government users. The company announced the Pléiades Neo program in 2016 and Airbus assembled the Pléiades Neo spacecraft at its factory in Toulouse, France.

The four-satellite program was expected to cost Airbus about 600 million euros, or about $700 million.

The Pléiades Neo satellites can produce optical images of the Earth’s surface at a resolution of 11.8 inches or 30 centimeters, according to Airbus. That’s good enough to solve functions like vehicles and road markings. The first two Pléiades satellites launched more than a decade ago have a resolution of 19.6 inches or 50 centimeters.

Airbus has released images of the first two Pléiades Neo satellites demonstrating their capabilities, lava flows from volcanic eruptions, large-scale music and sporting events, and images of aircraft and missiles at airports and spaceports.

The image resolution of Airbus’ four Pléiades Neo satellites is comparable to the resolution of Maxar’s six-satellite WorldView Legion surveillance satellites due to launch next year. The companies are competitors and provide the highest resolution Earth observation images in the global commercial market.

Using laser communication links between satellites, the Pléiades Neo satellites will be able to quickly respond to task requests within half an hour, according to Airbus.

A single Pléiades Neo satellite, using a new agile targeting capability enabled by checkpoint gyroscopes, can rotate left to right to observe the same location every two days. Once all four satellites are in orbit, the constellation can image any location on Earth twice a day.

Each Pléiades Neo spacecraft is designed to operate for at least 10 years. One Pléiades Neo satellite can collect images every day over an area of ​​nearly 200,000 square miles (500,000 square kilometers), Airbus says.

The Pléiades Neo 5 and 6 satellites were stacked on top of each other before being encased in the fairing of the Vega C rocket. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace/P. Baudon

The applications for Pléiades Neo imagery include urban planning and management, climate change assessments and determining the impacts of pollution. The satellites could also be tasked with assessing damage from natural disasters, and the images also have military applications.

The Vega C rocket was intended to place the Pléiades Neo 5 and 6 satellites in a polar, or north-south, orbit about 385 miles (620 kilometers) above Earth.

The European Vega rocket family is designed to launch small to medium-sized satellites into orbit. The upgraded Vega C rocket, developed in collaboration between Avio and the European Space Agency, is capable of carrying up to 2.3 tonnes (5,070 pounds) of payload to a polar orbit of 700 kilometers (435 miles), an increase versus the 3,300 lb (1.5 ton) capacity of the base model Vega missile.

ESA and the European Commission reached an agreement last month with Arianespace on the launch of five satellites for the European Copernicus earth observation system on Vega C rockets. The new deal increased Arianespace’s backlog to 15 Vega missions, including 13 Vega C missions and two more launches using the original Vega rocket configuration.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voice
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.


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