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Launch date fixed for Esa’s Vega rocket

14 Jan BBC

Europe has named Thursday 9 February as the day it intends to launch its new Vega rocket for the very first time.

The 30m-tall vehicle has been developed to take payloads up to 1.5 tonnes into a polar orbit, and will fly from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana.

The project has been led by Italian industry and is years behind on its original schedule.

But European Space Agency Director General, Jean-Jacques Dordain, said he would not force the pace.

“Today, the target date is 9 February, but it’s a target,” he told BBC News.

“I shall never say this is the definitive launch date because it is a maiden flight, and with a maiden flight I shall take no risk. There will be no compromise on any question which could still be open on 9 February.”

The caution is well advised. Statistics show that some two-thirds of the rockets introduced in the past 20 years have had an unsuccessful first outing.

It is for this reason that the satellites carried on the “qualification” flight have been given a free ride.

Biannual operations Vega is a four-stage rocket. Its first three segments burn a solid fuel; its fourth and final stage uses liquid propellants, and can be stopped and restarted several times to get a spacecraft into just the right orbit.

Esa expects an operational Vega to be launching about twice a year, carrying mostly small scientific and government satellites.

If the rocket should need to delay from 9 February to deal with technical issues, it will only be given a short window to resolve the problems before being asked to stand down for several weeks.

Vega’s big “brother” at Kourou, the Ariane 5 rocket, is booked to launch Europe’s third ATV cargo ship to the International Space Station (ISS) on 9 March, and this mission will take precedence if there is a conflict.

The frequent comings and goings at the orbiting platform require a carefully co-ordinated traffic schedule, and this will not be disrupted for an unrelated, experimental rocket flight.

“I have to respect my commitments to my International Space Station partners,” Mr Dordain explained.

“It’s clear that if we are arriving in a situation where the launch of Vega starts to interfere with the date of the launch of ATV 3, I will choose to switch and go for ATV first and Vega next.”

Long-term planning Vega is just the beginning of what is expected to be a busy year for Esa.

Other highlights include the launch of two major weather satellites, Meteosat 10 and Metop-B, and a trio of craft called Swarm that will measure the Earth’s magnetism in unprecedented detail.

Policy-wise, 2012 will also be a significant year because it will see the first Ministerial Council since 2008.

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