Vega rocket launches 53 satellites in return-to-flight mission

Europe's Vega rocket is back in action.

The four-stage booster, which is operated by French company Arianespace, lifted off tonight (Sept. 2) at 9:51 p.m. EDT (0151 GMT on Sept. 3) from Guiana Space Center in South America, carrying 53 satellites to orbit for 21 different customers from 13 countries.

Today's mission was the first for the 98-foot-tall (30 meters) Vega since July 10 of last year, when the rocket suffered a major anomaly during the launch of the United Arab Emirates' FalconEye1 Earth-observation satellite. Both the rocket and FalconEye1 were lost.

Related: Europe's Vega rocket in photos

By September 2019, investigators had traced the anomaly's likely cause to a thermo-structural failure in part of the Z23 motor, which powers Vega's second stage. 

Tonight's return to flight suggests that problem has been remedied. And the launch was a milestone in another way as well: It marked the debut of Europe's new Small Spacecraft Mission Service (SSMS) satellite dispenser.

The SSMS dispenser is designed to help make European rockets a more attractive option for customers looking to launch small satellites on rideshare missions, European Space Agency (ESA) officials have said.

Competition for the growing rideshare market is already stiff. For example, launch industry heavyweight SpaceX offers piggyback rides aboard its Falcon 9 rocket for as little as $1 million.

"This flight heralds a new era in rideshare opportunities for small satellites and shows our commitment to extending Europe's access to space capabilities to serve European institutions, strengthen our space industry and grow our economy," Renato Lafranconi, Vega exploitation program manager at ESA, said in a prelaunch statement.

The SSMS consists of an upper portion and a lower portion. On today's mission, which Arianespace calls VV16, the upper part hosted seven microsatellites weighing between 33 lbs. and 330 lbs. (15 to 150 kilograms). The lower portion housed 46 smaller cubesats, which ranged in size from 0.25U to 6U, Arianespace representatives wrote in a mission description. (One cubesat "U," or unit, is a cube 4 inches, or 10 centimeters, on a side.)

All 53 satellites are scheduled to be deployed by about one hour and 42 minutes after liftoff, Arianespace representatives said.

The 53 satellites that flew on VV16 will perform a variety of tasks in orbit, from Earth observation to telecommunications to technology demonstrations, Arianespace representatives said.

The Vega rocket is designed to loft relatively small payloads or, as on today's flight, lots of very small satellites. The booster debuted in February 2012 and had racked up 14 consecutive successful missions before the FalconEye1 failure last year.

Today's launch was originally scheduled to occur in June but was pushed back repeatedly by bad weather and scheduling issues.

This story was updated at 1:55 a.m. EDT on Sept. 3 with news of successful satellite deployment.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook. 

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.