Avio, the Italy-based aerospace company, faces a significant setback as its Vega rocket, known for its distinctive profile in the launch industry, approaches its last mission.
Recent reports from the European Spaceflight newsletter reveal a disconcerting development—two vital propellant tanks from the fourth stage of the Vega rocket, powered by dimethylhydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide fuel, went missing earlier this year.
Although there’s been a subsequent discovery of the propellant tanks, the condition in which they were found raises alarms. According to the newsletter, the tanks were recovered in a crushed state, alongside metal scraps in a landfill. This poses a substantial challenge for Avio, given that this launch marks the end of the Vega rocket’s service, and the production lines for this specific hardware are already closed.
The imminent mission involves launching the 1,250-kg BIOMASS satellite for the European Space Agency. This pivotal satellite mission aims to utilize a P-band synthetic aperture radar to monitor Earth’s forests’ health and track changes over time. Valued at over $200 million, the satellite’s launch hangs in the balance due to the compromised state of the propellant tanks.
A rocket with lots of problems
The Vega rocket, introduced in 2012, was designed for missions like the BIOMASS satellite. With a lift capacity of just over 2 metric tons to low-Earth orbit, it sits between small-lift and medium-lift rockets in terms of power. However, the Vega rocket faces challenges, particularly in terms of cost and reliability.
Priced at approximately $35 million to $40 million per launch, it struggles to compete with newer, cost-effective small launch companies and the more reliable Falcon 9.
Reliability concerns further compound the challenges for Vega, with two failures in its last seven launches and a lifetime failure rate of 10 percent across 21 launches. In response to these issues, Avio developed the Vega C rocket, offering increased lift capacity and reliability at a comparable price. Despite a successful debut in 2022, the second mission in December 2022 faced a second-stage failure, delaying the Vega C’s return to flight until at least a year from now.
The ongoing troubles with the Vega C rocket leave the European Space Agency with limited options for launching its BIOMASS satellite in the near term. The Ariane 6 rocket, set to debut in at least six months, presents a costly alternative with a lengthy backlog. Turning to SpaceX and its Falcon 9 is also doubtful.
Is there a solution?
To navigate this challenging situation, Avio is exploring two options, as reported by European Spaceflight.
The first involves utilizing old propellant tanks originally built for qualification tests of the Avio rocket over a decade ago. While engineers have reservations about their integrity due to age and the lack of intended flight, the company could subject two of these tanks to re-qualification tests for potential use in the launch.
The second option involves modifying the upper stage used by the Vega C rocket for compatibility with the original Vega rocket. However, uncertainties arise as the new AVUM+ upper stage was not initially intended for the original Vega rocket, raising questions about the European Space Agency’s willingness to endorse such a makeshift solution, which would basically be a test launch, for its valuable satellite launch.
The fate of the BIOMASS satellite mission now hangs in the balance as Avio navigates these intricate challenges in the twilight of the Vega rocket’s career.