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Faulty launcher nozzle destroyed two European satellites

Image: Esa – M. Pedoussaut

Space agency promises to address system “shortcomings”

A space launcher failure that destroyed two European satellites last year was caused by a faulty nozzle, an investigation has concluded.

Two Airbus Earth observation satellites were destroyed in December by the failure that afflicted a Vega-C launcher, one of the new generation of European space launchers intended to help overcome a severe shortage in European means of accessing space.

Independent investigators found that the nozzle gradually deteriorated through “unexpected thermo-mechanical over-erosion” of a throat insert, probably due to a flaw in the insert material, the European Space Agency reported on 3 March.

Esa said the investigation made several recommendations to prevent future failures, including no longer using the specific material and performing additional testing and analysis for the alternative material chosen.

A taskforce steered by Esa and the launch service provider Arianespace has started implementing a roadmap for resuming Vega-C flights by the end of 2023. Several similar failures have beset European launches in recent years.

“The failure represents the third failure in the last eight flights of Vega and Vega-C. This is very serious; we take it extremely [seriously] in terms of actions that need to follow out of this,” said Esa director-general Josef Aschbacher.

He added that he was “determined” to address “shortcomings in the system” identified by the inquiry and that other actions might be taken.