Crucial Rocket Parts End Up Crushed in a Landfill, Imperilling Satellite Mission

Crucial Rocket Parts End Up Crushed in a Landfill, Imperilling Satellite Mission

The final mission of the European Space Agency’s Vega rocket has encountered a bizarre setback. Key propellant tanks required for its last flight were found damaged in a landfill, jeopardizing the scheduled 2024 launch.

It’s common for wallets to go missing. Same for car keys and mobile phones. It happens. But for two propellant tanks belonging to a 98-foot-tall rocket to go missing? That’s super strange.

The two tanks belong to a set of four, and they’re needed to power the Vega AVUM fourth stage. Avio, the Italy-based company responsible for assembling the Vega rocket, lost track of the pieces in October, according to European Spaceflight. The tanks were later found crushed and unusable in a landfill, presenting a unusual and unwelcome challenge in getting the rocket ready for its final flight.

The AVUM fourth stage is powered by a Ukraine-built liquid-fueled engine, which relies on four spherical tanks for its propellant. They’re normally stored in Avio’s production department in Colleferro, which recently underwent renovations. For some reason, the missing tanks were not recorded in Avio’s company-wide asset management system, making recovery efforts particularly challenging, European Spaceflight reports.

The final Vega flight, set to launch from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, in the first half of 2024, aims to deploy ESA’s Biomass Earth observation satellite. This project, initiated in 2016 with Airbus Defence and Space U.K., involves the 2,756-pound (1,250-kilogram) Biomass satellite equipped with a P-band synthetic aperture radar to study Earth’s forests. However, due to the current situation, Avio is unlikely to meet its commitment to launch on schedule.

Faced with the absence of replacement tanks, as Vega production lines are shut down (the rocket is being retired), Avio is considering two options, according to European Spaceflight. One involves using older tanks from the vehicle’s 2012 qualification phase, raising concerns about their integrity. The other is modifying the AVUM upper stage for Vega; as European Spaceflight says, “This Frankenstein solution, which would use elements of a Vega C AVUM+ stage, would be completely unproven.” Indeed, definitely not something to mess around with when you’ve got a $US247 million satellite on the line.

As for ESA’s upcoming Ariane 6 rocket, that won’t launch until June or July 2024 at the earliest, and, having been delayed, faces a long backlog of customers wanting to get their precious cargo into space. ESA could tap SpaceX for its Falcon 9 rocket, but it’s not clear if that’s a viable option. As to when the Biomass satellite might launch and how, these are now very pertinent questions.

Avio’s relationship with ESA has become strained, particularly following the failed Vega C launch in December 2022. The failure was attributed to a component made by the Ukrainian company Yuzhnoye, sparking criticism from the Ukrainian government and scrutiny within the European space industry. This incident brought to light concerns about Avio’s quality control and decision-making processes. Several failures, including one in November 2020 due to human error, underscored these worries. Furthermore, Avio’s financial decisions, such as stock buybacks following substantial funding from the European Investment Bank and Italy’s Covid recovery fund, have also been questioned.

In a related development, ESA members recently approved Avio’s request to independently market and manage Vega C launches, moving away from the original requirement that Arianespace oversee these launches. A new path is set for Avio to make a big impact in the European market, but for that to happen, it’ll need to get its act together, and in particular, learn how to keep track of its rocket parts.

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