Crossed Wires Crash Rockets

On November 17th, a Vega rocket lifted off from French Guiana with its payload of two Earth observation satellites. The booster, coincidentally the 17th Vega to fly, performed perfectly: the solid-propellant rocket engines that make up its first three stages burned in succession. But soon after the fourth stage of the Vega ignited its liquid-fueled RD-843 engine, it became clear that something was very wrong. While telemetry showed the engine was operating as expected, the vehicle’s trajectory and acceleration started to deviate from the expected values.

There was no dramatic moment that would have indicated to the casual observer that the booster had failed. But by the time the mission clock had hit twelve minutes, there was no denying that the vehicle wasn’t going to make its intended orbit. While the live stream hosts continued extolling the virtues of the Vega rocket and the scientific payloads it carried, the screens behind them showed that the mission was doomed.

Displays behind the hosts clearly showed Vega wasn’t following the planned trajectory.

Unfortunately, there’s little room for error when it comes to spaceflight. Despite reaching a peak altitude of roughly 250 kilometers (155 miles), the Vega’s Attitude Vernier Upper Module (AVUM) failed to maintain the velocity and heading necessary to achieve orbit. Eventually the AVUM and the two satellites it carried came crashing back down to Earth, reportedly impacting an uninhabited area not far from where the third stage was expected to fall.

Although we’ve gotten a lot better at it, getting to space remains exceptionally difficult. It’s an inescapable reality that rockets will occasionally fail and their payloads will be lost. Yet the fact that Vega has had two failures in as many years is somewhat troubling, especially since the booster has only flown 17 missions so far. A success rate of 88% isn’t terrible, but it’s certainly on the lower end of the spectrum. For comparison, boosters such as the Soyuz, Falcon 9, and Atlas have success rates of 95% or higher.

Further failures could erode customer trust in the relatively new rocket, which has only been flying since 2012 and is facing stiff competition from commercial launch providers. If Vega is to become the European workhorse that operator Arianespace hopes, figuring out what went wrong on this launch and making sure it never happens again is of the utmost importance.

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