Vega, ESA's new launch vehicle, is ready to operate alongside the Ariane 5 and Soyuz launchers after a successful qualification flight this morning from Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.
With Vega extending the family of launchers available at the spaceport, Europe now covers the full range of launch needs, from small science and Earth observation satellites to the largest missions like ESA's supply freighters to the International Space Station.
The first Vega lifted off at 10:00 GMT (11:00 CET, 07:00 local time) from the new launch pad, and conducted a flawless qualification flight.
Vega's light launch capacity accommodates a wide range of satellites - from 300 kg to 2500 kg - into a wide variety of orbits, from equatorial to Sun-synchronous. Its reference mission is 1500 kg into a 700 km-high circular Sun-synchronous orbit.
Vega will thus add to Europe's set of launch services next to the Ariane 5 heavy-lifter and the Soyuz medium-class launcher already in service.
The combination of these three systems operating from French Guiana will also improve the efficiency of Europe's launch infrastructure by sharing its operating costs over a larger number of launches.
"In a little more than three months, Europe has increased the number of launchers it operates from one to three, widening significantly the range of launch services offered by the European operator Arianespace. There is not anymore one single European satellite which cannot be launched by a European launcher service," said Jean-Jacques Dordain, Director General of ESA.
"It is a great day for ESA, its Member States, in particularly Italy where Vega was born, for European industry and for Arianespace."
Vega launcher development started in 2003. Seven Member States contributed to the programme: Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.
"Today is a moment of pride for Europe as well as those around 1000 individuals who have been involved in developing the world's most modern and competitive launcher system for small satellites," said Antonio Fabrizi, ESA's Director of Launchers.
"ESA, with the technical support of the Italian and French space agencies, and about 40 industrial companies coordinated by the prime contractor ELV SpA, have made this enormous challenge a reality in under a decade of development."
More on the flight
All of Vega's three solid-propellant stages performed as planned. The upper stage manoeuvred to reach a circular orbit at an altitude of 1450 km inclined at 69.5º to the equator. There, it released the primary payload, the LARES laser relativity satellite, a 37.6 cm-diameter sphere of tungsten alloy fitted with 92 laser retroreflectors. The mirrors will allow high-precision distance measurements to study a 'frame-dragging' effect predicted by Einstein's theory of relativity.
The upper stage then manoeuvred again to reduce the orbit's lowest point to 350 km, to the correct orbit for release of the ALMASat-1 technology microsatellite and the seven tiny university-sponsored picosatellites.
The upper stage then jettisoned its remaining propellants and shut down.
In order to limit the risk of creating new space debris, Vega's upper stage is in an orbit that ensures reentry in a few years. It will be incinerated during descent, leaving only small pieces to reach the ground.
During the VV01 mission, a large amount of data was collected on Vega's performance, as well as the environment experienced by the payloads.
In the coming weeks, this information will be analysed in depth to confirm the full qualification of the Vega launch system, which will then be handed over to Arianespace for marketing and operations.
New technologies for large solid-propellant motors were demonstrated under flight conditions by the P80FW first stage. As the largest monolithic solid-propellant motor ever flown, it features a composite casing, an advanced nozzle and electromechanical actuators for steering - a world first for a motor of that size.
These technologies will be used on future Vega flights, of course, but they are also available for future launchers being studied by ESA as part of the Next Generation Launcher initiative.
Moving to the next phase
The Vega programme now enters a new phase, called VERTA: the Vega Research, Technology and Accompaniment programme.
Under VERTA, Vega will launch various science and technology missions.
The next flight is scheduled for early 2013 carrying ESA's Proba-V remote sensing satellite and multiple auxiliary payloads.
Other upcoming ESA missions under the VERTA programme are ADM-Aeolus to monitor wind profiles, Lisa Pathfinder to demonstrate technologies for detecting gravity waves, and the Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV), a demonstrator for advanced reentry technologies.
The first commercial contract for VEGA has already been signed by Arianespace, VEGA's commercial operator and more are under negotiation.
After an open competition, Arianespace was awarded the contract in December 2011 to launch the Sentinel-2B and Sentinel-3B satellites on the Vega launcher, part of ESA's Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) programme.
For more information on the new launcher, refer to the dedicated Vega section on: http://www.esa.int/SPECIALS/Vega/index.html
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