The Vega rocket, Europe's newest launch vehicle designed to complement its heavy lifting Ariane 5 and medium-class Soyuz boosters, completed a flawless first launch at 10:00 GMT (11:00 CET, 07:00 local time) on February 13th 2012.
Monday's lift-off was the important first qualification mission, not only intended to certify the Vega booster but also the ground infrastructure, including the new launch pad and operations systems. With the addition of Vega, ESA's (European Space Agency) rockets now cover the full range of launch needs, from small scientific and observation satellites to extremely large and heavy payloads such as re-supply missions to the International Space Station (ISS).
Space launchers are a nervous time for all those involved, but the first test of a new booster is especially so as they don't always go to plan! ESA know this all too well, in 1996, Ariane 5's first test flight failed, with the rocket self-destructing 37 seconds after launch due to a malfunction in the control software.
For its maiden outing, Vega placed nine payloads in orbit, including LARES (Laser Relativity Satellite), a physics experiment that will measure the Lense–Thirring effect. This effect causes a relativistic correction to the precession of a gyroscope near a large rotating mass such as the Earth, and the experiment is designed to measure it ten times better than previous satellites.
The bonus of having a satellite onboard the first mission is that you get to ride it for free! There is no charge for those on board who accepted the risks involved. Such a faultless mission will be an extreme relief to all. Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA's Director General said, "A new member of the launcher family has been born". He added, "In a little more than three months, Europe has increased the number of launchers it operates from one to three, widening significantly the range of launch services offered by the European operator Arianespace. There is not anymore one single European satellite which cannot be launched by a European launcher service. It is a great day for ESA, its Member States, in particularly Italy where Vega was born, for European industry and for Arianespace."
Vega is a four-stage rocket that burns solid fuel in the first three stages and liquid propellants in the fourth and final stage. It can launch a range of satellites (from 300 to 2500 kg) into a variety of orbits, from equatorial to Sun-synchronous.