An Arianespace Vega rocket is ready for an epic return to flight, as the European booster prepares to carry 53 satellites into orbit tonight (June 28).
Weather permiing, the Arianespace Vega rocket will launch a huge rideshare mission From the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana at 9:51 p.m. EDT (10:51 p.m. local time; 0151 GMT on June 29). The rocket carries satellite payloads from 13 nations. You can watch the launch live here on Space.com, courtesy of Arianespace, or directly via Arianespace on YouTube.
It will be the first flight of a Vega rocket since a launch failure almost a year ago. On July 10, 2019, Vega suffered a “major anomaly” that destroyed a United Arab Emirates Earth-observation satellite, along with the rocket itself. The incident was Vega’s first failure after 14 consecutive successful flights since its debut in 2012.
Today’s planned launch has been delayed since June 18 due to bad weather and could be postponed again if the weather doesn’t cooperate tonight, Arianespace has said. The latest launch attempt was on Saturday (June 27), when high winds prevented the launch.
“Subject to a favorable evolution of the weather conditions, another attempt will be made on Sunday, June 28,” Arianespace representatives said in a statement. “The Vega launch vehicle and its 53 spacecraft payloads are in stable and safe conditions”
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This new mission will be an evolution of Vega’s capabilities. The four-stage rocket will launch a proof-of-concept flight for its Small Spacecraft Mission Service (SSMS), which will send dozens of satellites into space for 21 customers.
The service is Arianespace’s response to a larger industry pivot away from launching single, large satellites into space. While some large satellites do still launch on the company’s rockets, the demand for tiny satellites has increased exponentially in recent years as computers and small satellite components become ever smaller and cheaper. In a description of the mission, Arianespace noted the launch would “address the nano- and microsatellite market sub-segment, serving both institutional and commercial needs.”
The European Space Agency (ESA) funded the SSMS hardware development and (in collaboration with the European Union) the proof-of-concept flight. ESA said in a separate statement that more customers are already eager to take part in the next Vega rideshare opportunity, given that the large number of satellites per launch lowers individual costs for participants.
“This [demand]gives us a lot of confidence that this new service will become a vital element of the Vega launch service,” Renato Lafranconi, Vega exploitation program manager at ESA, said in the statement.
The hefty satellite haul includes 46 cubesats and seven microsatellites, deployed in a special dispenser that has two sections. The lower section can hold up to six nanosatellites or up to a dozen, slightly larger cubesat deployers. The upper section is for microsatellites, minisatellites and small satellites. Another dispenser configuration could see a large satellite in the top section and many satellites occupying the bottom section, ESA said.
Among this large launch group, here are some of the payloads:
When the upper part of Vega reaches space, the rocket’s satellite dispenser will release the satellites in a coordinated sequence, ESA said. The satellites will be deployed in a “sun-synchronous orbit,” a nearly polar orbit that allows a satellite to pass over the same part of Earth at the same local time of day. The satellites will orbit at an altitude of 310 miles (500 kilometers).
After the satellites are all deployed, the rocket’s upper stage will push the dispenser to a safe reentry in Earth’s atmosphere, avoiding the problem of the dispenser becoming dead space junk.
Should this mission be successful, Arianespace said it plans to implement more rideshares on the forthcoming Vega-C launcher, a lightweight rocket that will eventually replace Vega. Vega-C’s first test flight is expected late in 2020.
The new launcher, Arianespace said in its statement, “will offer an extra 700 kg [roughly 1,500 lbs.]of capacity and enlarged volume within a wider launcher fairing — at the same Vega launch cost as before.” The increased capacity will allow Vega-C to fly more satellites per launch and reduce the cost by weight, Arianespace added.