A Big Step for Europe's Small Space Launcher

Vega on its first mission.


Today's inaugural flight of Europe's Vega rocket went off without a hitch as European Space Agency mission VV01 lit up the early morning sky above the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana. Vega is a novel small launcher designed to carry scientific and Earth observation satellites, anything from 300 to 2500 kilograms.

In recent years, many small satellite missions have opted to use converted Russian ICBMs, such as Rokot and Dnepr, to get into space, but these launchers have sometimes had reliability problems. So 9 years ago, ESA, in collaboration with the Italian Space Agency, set out to develop its own small launcher. Some €700 million later, Vega is ready for business. Its clients will come mainly from the government market and the rocket already has five launches booked from ESA, followed by the first two Sentinel environmental monitoring mission from the European Union. The diminutive Vega, which is just 30 meters tall, will now be operated by Arianespace and will complement the company's medium-sized Soyuz launcher and the heavy-lifting Ariane 5. "There is not anymore one single European satellite which cannot be launched by a European launcher service," ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain said in a statement.

Monday's maiden flight carried a total of nine satellites, which all got a free ride. The largest, dubbed LARES, will test the Lense-Thirring effect, a prediction of general relativity that concerns the distortion of spacetime by a rotating massive body. The remaining eight are all tiny satellites built by university groups.