European Space Agency (ESA) has announced a setback in the return to flight of the Vega C small launch vehicle. The delay was caused by an anomaly during a static-fire test, leading to the need for a redesign of the rocket motor nozzle.
The test revealed that a new throat insert, made of carbon-carbon material, was expelled from the nozzle along with other pieces. As a result, the motor continued burning at lower pressures until fuel exhaustion. It’s worth noting that this anomaly was unrelated to a launch failure in December 2022 that was also attributed to the same motor.
In light of these findings, ESA has recommended a redesign of the Zefiro 40 nozzle, along with improved modeling of its performance. Additionally, two static-fire tests will be conducted to validate the new design. Avio and ESA personnel have already commenced the necessary work as part of a joint task force.
The revised plan now envisions the return to flight of Vega C in the fourth quarter of 2024, with a single static-fire test in the second quarter of that year to confirm the performance of the redesigned nozzle and refined numerical models. Prior to Vega C’s return to flight, there will be two launches of the original version of the Vega.
Despite the setback, Arianespace, the company responsible for Vega C launches, is working closely with its customers to discuss the implications of the delay. They do not anticipate a significant number of customers withdrawing their commitments.
The additional work required for the return to flight will be funded within existing budgets. The estimated cost of the full return-to-flight is anticipated to be approximately €25-30 million ($26.3-$31.6 million).
The delay in the return to flight of Vega C underscores the complexity and meticulousness required in the field of space exploration. While it may push back planned missions, the thoroughness of the redesign process and the commitment to ensuring a safe and reliable launch vehicle is paramount. ESA and its partners remain dedicated to overcoming challenges and continuing to push the boundaries of space exploration.
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