BERLIN (AP) — The European Space Agency on Wednesday celebrated the maiden flight of its Vega-C rocket, designed to bring more money to customers in the increasingly competitive business of launching satellites into orbit.
Vega-C is an upgrade of the Vega rocket that debuted in 2012 as a launch vehicle specializing in lifting small payloads into space. The new rocket can carry heavier payloads than its predecessor while consuming less fuel.
According to the ESA, Vega-C will be particularly useful for launching Earth observation satellites, but it is also envisaged as support for Space Rider, an unmanned robotic laboratory which will be the agency’s first reusable space vehicle. .
The 35-meter (115-foot) high rocket’s launch from French Guiana was twice delayed shortly before liftoff due to technical issues, but was successful on the third attempt.
Vega-C accelerates much faster than its big brother Ariane 5, reaching a speed of 16,000 kilometers per hour (nearly 10,000 mph) within two minutes of launch. The Ariane 5, ESA’s heavy launcher, is also due for an upgrade soon.
The Vega-C rocket on Wednesday launched an Italian-made satellite called LARES-2 – which looks like a giant disco ball – which will serve as a target for a ground-based laser station, and six small cube-shaped mini-satellites from France, from Italy and Slovenia containing scientific experiments.
The ESA chief has announced a series of ambitious new projects as Europe tries to compete with the United States, China and new private sector rivals in the growing space sector.
The agency is also developing another variant, Vega-E, which uses a cleaner fuel made from liquid oxygen and methane. This launcher should be ready by 2026.