Italy's Vega rockets grounded as investigators probe failed launch
ROME/PARIS, Dec 21 (Reuters) - Italy's Vega rockets have been grounded and an investigation is under way after the latest model failed on its second mission, destroying two Earth-imaging satellites and further complicating Europe's access to space on top of the war in Ukraine.
Launch firm Arianespace said on Wednesday a "serious anomaly" occurred two minutes and 27 seconds after the upgraded Vega C left the pad in French Guiana, thwarting efforts to add two satellites to the Pleiades Neo constellation operated by Airbus (AIR.PA).
"Unfortunately we can say that the mission is lost and I want to deeply apologise," Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel told a video feed of the launch, monitored via space.com.
A spokesperson for Arianespace said both the Vega C and its Vega predecessor had been grounded pending the findings of an investigative commission co-chaired by technical officials from the European Space Agency and Arianespace itself.
Israel told reporters the commission would consult independent experts and propose "robust and long-lasting corrective actions to guarantee a safe and reliable return to flight".
Italy's Vega C rocket is due to play an increasingly crucial role in Europe's access to space after Moscow's invasion of Ukraine forced Arianespace to stop using Russian Soyuz vehicles.
Until now, Europe has relied on the Vega programme for small payloads, Soyuz for medium ones and Ariane for heavy missions.
Italian Industry Minister Adolfo Urso expressed "full confidence that the launches will resume soon," without saying why he was optimistic.
But Arianespace has been forced to scrap plans to announce a Vega C launch schedule for 2023 in coming weeks.
The company said the second stage of Vega C, known as Zefiro-40, had suffered a drop in pressure after ignition, prompting engineers to transmit a "destruction" command and send the launcher and its high-tech payload safely into the Atlantic.
In Milan, shares in Avio (AVI.MI), which designed and built most of the rocket, including the Zefiro-40 stage, fell as much as 11% following the loss of Vega C's first commercial mission, and its second flight since a successful maiden voyage in July.
The rocket's failure is the latest headache for Europe's space planners after the withdrawal of Russia's Soyuz as well as delays to the new Ariane 6 and the ExoMars rover mission.
It comes weeks after the European Space Agency rejigged three Soyuz launches, including the Europe-Japan EarthCARE satellite which it moved to Vega C with a target of early 2024.
Now its plans are uncertain again as Europe faces potential gaps, first for geopolitical and then for technical reasons.
Analysts said only a few operational alternatives to Vega C exist, such as potential rideshares aboard U.S.-based SpaceX's bigger Falcon 9 or Firefly Aerospace's new Alpha launcher, which can loft roughly half the payload weight of Vega C.
Other options, though somewhat larger than Vega C, include rockets from Japan and India.
Arianespace's Israel stressed that Ariane 5 and 6 were not affected by the latest incident.
The first two Pleaides Neo satellites were launched in 2021 and the two lost on Vega C were due to complete a constellation capable of 30 cm-resolution images for civil and military use.
Insurance experts said the loss of the two satellites had clouded what had previously looked set to be a profitable year for underwriters of satellite risks.
The two satellites were insured for a total 212 million euros ($224.9 million), said David Todd, head of space content at analysis firm Seradata.
Airbus, which owns and operates the Pleaides constellation, declined to comment.
($1 = 0.9427 euro)
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