The European Space Agency's (ESA) new Vettore Europeo di Generazione Avanzata - or Vega - launch vehicle lifted off from Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, at 10 a.m. GMT on February 13 on its maiden flight. Designed for launching small payloads, Vega is intended to complement Europe's existing family of launchers that includes the Ariane 5 heavy-lifter and Soyuz medium-class launchers. The qualification flight, designated VV01, saw the first Vega successfully carry nine satellites into orbit.
Vega is designed to carry satellites ranging from 300 kg (661 lb) to 2,500 kg (5,512 lb) into a wide variety of orbits - from equatorial to Sun-synchronous. Its maiden flight carried a payload totaling 1,500 kg (3,307 lb) into a 700 km (435 mile)-high circular Sun-synchronous orbit. The largest single satellite was the Italian Space Agency's LARES (Laser Relativity Satellite), which weighs roughly 400 kg (882 lb) and is designed to enable precise laser ranging measurements from Earth thanks to the 92 reflectors dotted around its spherical tungsten surface.
Development of the Vega launcher by ESA and its partners, the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and ELV SpA, began in 2003 and included the involvement of seven member states: Belgium, France, Italy, The Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.
Vega is a single-body launcher with three solid rocket stages and a liquid-propellant Attitude Vernier Upper Module (AVUM) for attitude and orbit control, and satellite release. It weighs 137,000 kg (302,033 lb) at launch and stands 30 m (98 ft) high with a diameter of 3 m (9.8 ft).
Vega's maiden launch started with ignition of its P80 solid-propellant engine, which burned out and separated in just under two minutes. This was followed by the Zefiro-23 second stage igniting one second later before being jettisoned about 3 minutes and 20 seconds into the flight.
The Zefiro-9 third stage fired about 15 seconds later propelling the vehicle through the Earth's atmosphere with the fairing protecting the payload discarded just before the four-minute mark. This was followed by the separation of the Zefiro-9 at around the 5 minute 45 second mark. About ten seconds later, the AVUM liquid-propellant fourth stage began its first firing, followed by a second firing some 48 minutes later.
LARES separated from the upper stage at just under an hour into the flight, with the remaining satellites separated in just over 70 minutes.
With the maiden flight a success, the Vega launch system will now be handed over to Arianespace, which will oversee commercial operations aimed at the international market. The goal is for a minimum of two missions per year, with the ESA already committing to five launches.