Europe's Vega C rocket launch failure caused by nozzle flaw, investigators say

screenshot of rocket lifting off with plumes of steam surrounding. the launch is at night, so the sky is dark and the plumes are orange
An Arianespace Vega C rocket launches from Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, carrying two Earth-observation satellites for Airbus' Pleiades constellation. The mission on Dec. 20, 2022 failed shortly after liftoff. (Image credit: Arianespace)

A fault in a nozzle caused the failure of the European Vega C rocket's second-ever flight, a commission concluded.

"Gradual deterioration" of the rocket nozzle — and more specifically, unexpected "overerosion" of a carbon-carbon (C-C) insert inside of the nozzle — led to the loss of Vega C on Dec. 20, an independent investigation commission said today (March 3) in a European Space Agency press release.

"The criteria used to accept the C-C throat insert were not sufficient to demonstrate its flightworthiness. The commission has therefore concluded that this specific C-C material can no longer be used for flight," the release added. 

Maker Arianespace said in the release it would implement the recommendations of the commission and target another launch of Vega C for late 2023.

Related: Europe's Vega C rocket fails on 2nd-ever mission, 2 satellites lost

Vega C is a more powerful successor to the Vega, which first took flight in 2012. For comparison: Vega C can send 5,070 pounds (2,300 kilograms) of payload to a 435-mile-high (700 kilometers) sun-synchronous orbit, compared to 3,300 pounds (1,500 kg) for the older rocket, according to Arianespace.

The first stage of the 115-foot (35-meter) four-stage Vega C rocket, called P120C, worked just fine after lifting off from Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana on Dec. 20, but the second-stage Zefiro 40 suffered the failure. Two satellites for Airbus' Pléiades Neo Earth-imaging constellation were lost in the incident.

The C-C insert on Zefiro 40 was procured by Italian company Avio in Ukraine, and the commission said investigators uncovered "a flaw in the homogeneity of the material." Avio will put in an "immediate alternative solution" with another C-C material, which ArianeGroup makes and which is also used on the original Vega's rocket nozzles (like the Zefiro 23 and the Zefiro 9.)

The loss of the Pléiades satellites on Dec. 20 delayed the completion of Airbus' Pléiades Neo Earth-imaging constellation, which operates in sun-synchronous orbit (meaning the spacecraft flies in an orbit keeping the angle of the sun consistent on the ground). The spacecraft were called Pléiades Neo 5 and Pléiades Neo 6 and together weighed 4,359 pounds (1,977 kg).

Before the December failure, Vega C completed a July 2022 flight that successfully sent aloft LARES-2, a 650-pound (295 kg) satellite developed by the Italian Space Agency, as well as six ride-along cubesats.

Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of "Why Am I Taller?" (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: