Maiden flight for ESA's Vega rocket tonight

By Phil Plait | February 12, 2012 10:32 am

[Update (February 13, 2012): The launch was a success! Congrats to the ESA for this achievement.]

The European Space Agency’s new launch vehicle, Vega, has its first "qualification flight" scheduled for Monday morning: the launch window is from 10:00 to 12:00 UTC (05:00 to 07:00 Eastern US time). ESA has a page where you can watch the launch live.

Vega is a smaller rocket, designed to haul 300 – 2000 kg payloads to low Earth orbit. It’s 30 meters tall by 3 meters wide (100 x 10 feet), so we’re not talking huge here. But this is a size needed for smaller payloads that don’t need huge thrust. This first launch will loft nine satellites in total: the AlMaSat demonstration satellite (30 cm on a side); another called LARES which is 390 kg in mass, designed to test an aspect of relativity called frame dragging (where a spinning object such as the Earth warps space by dragging it along with its spin, like a viscous fluid); and seven tiny satellites called picosats.

Given that this is the dead of night my time, I’ll watch it in reruns, but if the timing is more amenable to you give it a look! It’s not often you get to see the maiden voyage of a new rocket.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Space
MORE ABOUT: ESA, Relativity, Vega

Comments (25)

  1. Blargh

    Nice to see my space-marked tax dol… er, non-dollars going to something useful rather than to the giant white elephant that is the Galileo satnav system…

    Thanks for the heads-up. I have the morning off, so I might actually get to watch this!

  2. Manuel McLure

    It seems incredibly optimistic to me to launch actual useful satellites on the first launch of a new booster. Then again, I expect that the owners of the satellites got a bargain rate.

  3. ethanol

    It’s an odd rocket; four stages, which unusual but especially so on something so small , and the first three of them are solid boosters. Maybe the idea is that with solid rocket engines being cheaper and lighter, they can pack in more stages and make up somewhat for the lower efficiency of solid fuel. SRB’s are not my favorite from the environmental point of view, but I guess they are only planning on two launches a year.

  4. MadScientist

    It only took 10 years to design, build, test, and certify! (And yet we’re magically going to come up with a super-duper-heavy-lifter in 4 years … suuure.)

  5. ethanol

    MadScientist: That a certain task was completed ineptly is hardly evidence that it must always be done so. The counterpoint of course is the Saturn V program. Now I don’t think that the Senate Launch System development program is anything like the program that gave us the Saturn V, but hope remains for the Falcon super-heavy.

  6. Pepijn

    @Manuel McLure: they are getting the bargain rate of nothing at all! :-) Plus they are probably well insured by Lloyds of London or something .

  7. MadScientist

    @ethanol#5: Are you suggesting that the Vega project was run ineptly? Even the Falcon-9 has yet to perform a commercial launch and the Falcon Heavy is still in development. A comparison to the Apollo missions is inappropriate; von Braun and others have been working on similar engine designs for years and the resources sunk into the Apollo missions from the Kennedy and Johnson era were phenomenal. Well, we’ll see how this first qualification flight goes.

  8. Crux Australis

    I know this is off topic but…I’m expecting some comments in my 9th grade (?) science class tomorrow about the cost is space travel. Philip posted a cool graphic showing a square, representing the US budget. It was subdivided into sectors, and space research was a tiny square in the bottom. Anyone remember where it was? I can’t find it in the Politics archives. Can anyone help?

  9. Launch coverage starts in three hours thirty-three minutes from now according to the link – best wishes for a safe, smooth and succcessful take -off to the ESA rocket scientists involved. :-)

    Thanks for the link, BA – I’ll be watching!

    Always superb to see live rocket launches especially for a new rocket type’s maiden launch. Wish our world had more of those.

  10. @8. Crux Australis :

    Philip posted a cool graphic showing a square, representing the US budget. It was subdivided into sectors, and space research was a tiny square in the bottom. Anyone remember where it was? I can’t find it in the Politics archives. Can anyone help?

    Sure. I’m pretty certain its the article I’ve linked to my name for this comment titled :

    Wait, how big is NASA’s budget again?

    Which was posted by the Bad Astronomer on the 16th of February, 2010 7:52 AM – see under Tags: budget, New York Times by Phil Plait in NASA, Politics.

    Hope that’s the one you meant & you see this in time. :-)

  11. ethanol


    10 years is a long time to develop a rocket, but if they weren’t spending heavily and if speed wasn’t their priority (which it probably wasn’t) perhaps “ineptly” was a little harsh. While the apollo program didn’t start from scratch, certainly the NASA of today has an even greater existing repertoire of technology and institutional development which the SLS draws on heavily. Even if that is primarily for the purpose of protecting jobs in certain districts, it still helps it get off the ground quicker (although the final product may be too expensive to use very often). Yes the Saturn program had far more resources behind it: while I believe that either the SLS or the SpaceX could produce a super-heavy launch vehicle on a 5 year time scale, it certainly won’t happen without throwing significantly more resources at it.

  12. MadScientist

    Well, the flight went beautifully – I’ll have to check tomorrow’s news to find out if the payloads were delivered successfully, but it’s all looking good.

  13. AV

    Europe still misses, compared to the other big ones (including China now), the ability and know-how for sending an actual human being into space. Still, watching the launch, I couldn’t notice they’ve the most charming Range Operations Manager, an african-french lady named Aimee with such sexy voice! A countdown in French sounds so sexy! :-)

  14. Chris

    official ESA YouTube video: “Launch Replay: Vega qualification flight”

  15. Here’s a link to the ESA webpage containing a video of the launch:
    “The first Vega lifted off at 10:00 GMT (11:00 CET, 07:00 local time) from the new launch pad, and conducted a flawless qualification flight.”


  16. Crux Australis

    @Messier: Perfect! Thank you so much! I’ll bookmark it for next time.

  17. Crux Australis

    Oh sorry, Ganzy! I didn’t see your reply. That’s the one, thanks very much.

  18. Wow, that ALMASat almost looks like the Swedish Munin satellite that I worked on as a grad student (click my name for link). Viva nanosats!

  19. MadScientist

    @Wayne#20: Yes, those microsats/nanosats all look the same to me – small purple cubes.

  20. Ganzy

    @19 Crux Australis

    Hey, no worries Crux :) My reply to you go steered into a holding pattern of sorts, a digital cul-de-sac. Phil was full of REM while Vega was going for broke, but old Messier (above-down-under) stepped up to supply the goods also. That’s what I love about this community; ask a question, get an answer.. pronto-ish!

    Main thing is, your pupils got what they were looking for. 😀 😀

  21. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Ganzy : Seconded by me. Well those last two lines are anyhow. :-)

    @18. Crux Australis : No worries – glad you got it in time. :-)

    @15. AV :

    Europe still misses, compared to the other big ones (including China now), the ability and know-how for sending an actual human being into space.

    Wonder which nation will be next into the Black – India? Europe? Japan?
    Wish it would be Australia! 😉
    (But, sadly, pretty sure it won’t be. )

    Wonder too how long now before an American rocket flies US astronauts into space again in this post-Shuttle, post (hopefully?) global economic crisis era we’re now in.

  22. elzoli75

    Vega launched the first Hungarian satellite, a picosat called MASAT-1
    It’s up and working :-)



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