Vega Launch Failure, Not-So-Great Moments in Launch Commentary

Vega / Falcon Eye 1 liftoff, 2019-07-11At 01:53 UTC today (2019-07-11) a European Space Agency (ESA) Vega rocket was launched from Arainespace’s site at Kourou, French Guiana, on the east coast of South America.  Its payload was the Falcon Eye 1 reconnaissance satellite built by Airbus Defense and Space for the United Arab Emirates.  The Italian-built Vega is the smallest launcher operated by ESA, and was to place Falcon Eye 1, with a mass of 1197 kg, in a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 611 km.

The Vega is a four stage rocket, with the first three stages solid fuelled and the fourth stage using a hypergolic liquid fuelled engine manufactured in the Ukraine.  This was the fifteenth flight of Vega since its introduction in 2012; all of the first fourteen flights were successful.  Here’s what happened this time.

At around two minutes after launch, the first stage shut down and separated from the second stage, which was supposed to immediately start burning.  From the image, there is no obvious evidence that the second stage actually lit.  I think what you’re seeing is just the normal tail-off as a solid rocket motor burns out.

Shortly thereafter you hear call-outs from the flight controllers about things being off-nominal, the trajectory being depressed, etc., and the trajectory plot board, which should show the altitude continuing to rise, instead shows the parabolic arc you’d expect for an inert object initial rising under its momentum and then falling back to Earth.

Vega launch failure: trajectory plot

The public affairs announcer, however, continued to read from the script for a normal launch, and animations showed the second and third stages performing as they were supposed to.  They even cut to show a video about the satellite and its mission.  Then, there’s an announcement that telemetry has been lost and then, finally, at the nine minute mark, a statement reporting failure of the mission due to a “major anomaly”.

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Author: John Walker

Founder of Ratburger.org, Autodesk, Inc., and Marinchip Systems. Author of The Hacker's Diet. Creator of www.fourmilab.ch.

3 thoughts on “Vega Launch Failure, Not-So-Great Moments in Launch Commentary”

  1. Phil Turmel:
    Maybe they can’t afford to use their own engineers as hosts, like SpaceX does?  /snark

    Well, most of their engineers don’t speak fluent English.

    When they had the near-loss of Ariane 5 VA-241 due to bungled input of the launch azimuth, the commentary was more accurate and reflected the loss of telemetry as it happened.  It may be that the second-string team covers Vega launches.  On the other hand, in that case it took around an hour for an official statement to be issued about the problem where in this case it only took nine minutes.  As it turned out, the VA-241 payloads could be salvaged (albeit at the cost of 50% of the service life of one of them), while the Vega VV15 payload is sleeping with the fishes.

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