Vega C takes off for its maiden flight

TAMPA, Fla. — Europe’s new medium-lift Vega C rocket lifted off on its maiden flight on July 13, carrying an Italian physics satellite and six cubesats.

The four-stage rocket launched from Kourou, French Guiana, at 9:13 a.m. Eastern at the end of a two-hour launch window. Technical problems had twice interrupted the countdown sequence.

Italy’s 295-kilogram Laser Relativity Satellite-2, or LARES-2, is the primary payload and was placed in an unusual inclined orbit at 5,893 kilometers to test Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

LARES-2 was deployed nearly 85 minutes after liftoff, followed by six cubesats about 45 minutes later.

Three of the cubesats also come from Italy: AstroBio which will test a solution for detecting biomolecules in space, Greencube with a plant cultivation experiment in microgravity and ALPHA which aims to demonstrate a technology to understand the Earth’s magnetosphere.

Joining them are MTCube-2 and Celesta from France and Trisat-R from Slovenia, which will study the effects of radiation on electronic systems.

Arianespace performed the launch and declared the mission successful in a press release after a flight of approximately two hours and 15 minutes.

“With this inaugural launch officially declared successful, Arianespace will now start operations of Vega C, a key step for European sovereign access to space,” said Stéphane Israël, CEO of Arianespace.

Vega C’s first commercial launch is scheduled for November, when the rocket is expected to place the Pléiades Neo 5 and 6 Earth-imaging satellites for their manufacturer and operator Airbus.

Vega C debuts on a cloudy day in Kourou. Credit: ESA, CNES, Arianespace / CSG Video Optics – S Martin

Vega C has more powerful rocket engines and a larger payload volume than Vega, which is retiring after its first launch a decade ago.

The improved rocket can carry about 2.3 metric tons to a reference polar orbit at 700 kilometers altitude, according to the European Space Agency, compared to 1.5 metric tons for its predecessor.

Vega C’s first stage is powered by a P120 engine that will also be used by Europe’s upcoming Ariane 6 launcher, which has two variants to replace Europe’s Ariane 5 heavy rocket and the Soyuz medium rocket that originated in Russia.

ESA announced on July 12 that the central core of Ariane 6, comprising its middle stage and its upper stage, had been transferred to a launch pad in Kourou for combined tests before an inaugural launch next year.

The central core is joined by three pylons shaped like the rocket’s solid boosters and an inert mock-up of the fourth booster, for tests including tank filling and an automated countdown sequence.

This article was updated on July 13 after the last payload from Vega C’s maiden flight separated from the rocket.