Ariane 5 is out of production, Ariane 6 in test phase and Vega with all flights cancelled because of a recent accident

Europe runs out of rockets for autonomous access to space

photo_camera PHOTO/Austria Presse - ESA and its director general, Austrian Josef Aschbacher, do not have the launchers to meet global demand, its commitments to Brussels and not even to put its own satellites into orbit

Overnight, the European Space Agency (ESA) headed by Austrian Josef Aschbacher has been left without any capacity to position its own satellites in outer space.

Neither Aschbacher nor his director of space transport, the Swiss Daniel Neuenschwander, have any space vector model to fulfil their commitments to the European Union to renew the Copernicus constellation and place their Sentinel environmental monitoring satellites in orbit. Much less is ESA in a position to meet the growing global demand for launch services that is knocking on its doors, those of the United States, China and India.

What has happened? Well, the latest launch of the small European rocket Vega has just had its third failure in the last four years, which has forced ESA to put on hold until who knows when all the missions that had already been scheduled. But this accident, although it did not cause any known human casualties or material damage, is the last straw that broke the camel's back. 

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It so happens that the production lines of the veteran Ariane 5 rocket are all shut down and have already given way to the production and assembly lines of the new Ariane 6, whose maiden flight is three years behind schedule and is now announced for the end of 2023.

In addition, Russian technicians have left their cosmodrome at the European space base in Kourou, French Guiana. As a result, Soyuz rocket launches from South America, which are marketed by the French company Arianespace, are at a standstill and there is no expectation that they can be resumed. This is Moscow's retaliation for the sanctions imposed by Brussels on the Kremlin for its invasion of Ukraine. 

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A perfect storm 

In short, the Vega rocket disaster comes at the worst possible time and has caused what could be described as a perfect storm. For one reason or another, all four families of ESA launchers marketed internationally by Arianespace - Ariane 5, Ariane 6, Vega and Soyuz - are out of service.

There is no possibility of producing more Ariane 5s, Ariane 6 will be in testing until at least the last weeks of 2023, and Arianespace's Russian Soyuz launches are at a standstill. To make matters worse, the Vega rocket missions will not resume until the work of the Commission of Inquiry into the causes of the accident has been completed. A minimum of half a year, possibly much longer.

The failure that has left ESA without independent access to space occurred just over a week ago, in the early hours of 20-21 December. It was the VV22 mission -Vega Flight Number 22-, the first commercial launch of the more powerful and supposedly improved Vega-C -C for Consolidation- which, unfortunately, instead of consolidating, has weakened. Capable of holding satellites up to 2.2 tonnes, Vega-C was intended to dominate the low-orbit launch market

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The disaster occurred as Vega-C was in the middle of its ascent flight to deliver two French earth observation satellites, each weighing around 990 kilos, to an altitude of 620 kilometres. They were to join the Pleiades Neo 3 and 4 - in orbit since April and August 2021 respectively - and complete "a commercial constellation dedicated to imaging any area of the globe with a resolution of 30 centimetres," says François Lombard, head of Airbus' intelligence branch.

After liftoff, the P120C rocket engine performed as planned and within two minutes the Italian-built rocket reached an altitude of 61 kilometres. The first stage detached, giving way to the ignition of the Zefiro 40 rocket engine of the second stage.  

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Finding out the causes and taking corrective action 

But 27 seconds later, when the tremendous acceleration had already brought the second stage to an altitude of 110 kilometres, the Zefiro 40 experienced "an unexpected loss of thrust" and began to lose altitude. With the telemetry data on the mission control and tracking screens, the French space agency, the flight safety authority, ordered the destruction of Vega-C and, with that decision, also of the two satellites it was still carrying.

Minutes later, Arianespace's boss, Stéphane Israel, from the Jupiter Control Centre at the Kourou space base, after receiving the situation report from the launch director, announced with a sad face that "the mission has been lost". All eyes are on the prime contractor for Vega and the Zefiro 40 engine, the Italian company Avio. Its CEO, Giulio Ranzo, has already stated that his company takes "full responsibility for the failure of the Vega-C". 

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The mandate given to the Commission of Inquiry is to determine the causes of the Zefiro 40 engine's loss of power, to propose "robust and durable" corrective actions and to verify that they are implemented "to ensure the safe and reliable return to flight of the Vega launchers," said Stéphane Israël. Otherwise, even ESA and Brussels will hire Falcon 9 rockets from Elon Musk's SpaceX or turn to launchers from India or even China if they have no choice.

But are all, all European rocket flights grounded? Fortunately not. Although the Ariane 5 production lines are dismantled, a couple of these launchers remain built and are not under any restrictions. But they have been under contract and assigned their respective missions for several years. 

PHOTO/Esa-CNES-Arianespace

The first is scheduled for liftoff on 16 February, carrying three military communications satellites: the French Syracuse 4B, the Swedish Ovzon 3 and the German Heinrich Hertz. And between 14 and 30 April, the last Ariane 5 is due to lift off, bringing its 25-year history to a close... without Ariane 6 having taken over. The cargo on that Ariane 5 is ESA's JUICE interplanetary science probe, which is due to reach Jupiter in mid-2031 and study the planet and its mysterious moons Ganymede, Callisto and Europa. 

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