Fingers crossed and re-crossed as Vega moves toward maiden flight

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Europe's space industry is embarking on a nervous few weeks of final preparation for the maiden flight of Vega, its all-new light rocket.

Next week will see the latest in a series of go-or-no decisions in the run-up to 9 February, the flight date set in January, after engineers at the European Space Agency's Guiana Space Centre in Kourou began final assembly following a successful night-time transfer of the payload, encapsulated in its protective fairing, to the launch pad, where the assembled 30m (98ft), four-stage launcher was waiting in its mobile gantry.

ESA director general Jean-Jacques Dordain has underscored his determination to address every issue that could endanger the flight. To that end, Dordain, in Paris, is in daily discussions with his chief in Kourou, Joel Donadel, and ESA's Vega programme boss, Stefano Bianchi.

Bianchi, speaking in Kourou this week, stressed the extent to which everything that can be done will be done to ensure a successful launch, including any further testing or simulation that might add to his confidence in the mission. But Vega features a number of new technologies and no amount of checking in advance can lift the nagging doubt of historical precedent. Data compiled by Flightglobal's Ascend information service reveals nearly two-thirds of maiden flights end in failure.

The Vega programme suffered a delay in 2007 when nozzle failure marred a ground test of the third-stage solid-fuel motor, although Bianchi said his main concern on the first flight will be the 107s burn of the solid-fuel first stage, up to the point where it is jettisoned and the second ignites.

NEW TECHNOLOGY

Vega is technically ambitious. Taking a step beyond the hydraulics carried by Ariane-5, electro-mechanical actuators control Vega's nozzle steering system. Its flight control computer is many generations beyond Ariane's proven design, while the main engine casing is among the world's largest one-piece carbonfibre structures.

All these technologies are candidates to feature on upgrades to Ariane-5, including the ME version - Midlife Extension - recently approved for final development by ESA in a bid to add a fifth to the launcher's 10T to geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO) payload capability. Notably, Vega's 3m main engine diameter was chosen to match that of Ariane-5's twin solid boosters, made of stainless steel. The carbonfibre structure is lighter than steel and also does away with the need for exterior thermal protection.

But with Vega, the stakes go beyond confidence in all-European technologies or even the palpable issue of Italian pride. Italian space agency ASI originated the programme and has been its main financial backer, contributing 60% of the more than €1 billion ($1.3 billion) that will have been invested during 1998-2014 and the conclusion of a series of six flights demonstrating Vega's versatility, and carrying ESA scientific payloads.

Ultimately, Vega is critical to ESA's ambition to ensure Europe is an independent, meaningful player in spaceflight for decades to come. While venerable heavy-lift rocket Ariane-5, and the medium-lift Soyuz introduced to Kourou operations last year, provide outstanding capability to loft large communications and other satellites to GTO or to deliver cargo - or even, in principle, astronauts - to the International Space Station, Vega is a far more flexible and economical vehicle for orbiting the much smaller class of Earth observation and scientific spacecraft.

However understandable a failure would be, there is no doubt a successful Vega first flight would make life much easier for Dordain who, in his January presentation on ESA's goals for 2012, was strictly realistic about the potential impact of Europe's ongoing financial crisis on ESA's €4 billion budget. Come November, he will be making ESA's case to the agency's council of ministers, asking for money from cash-strapped ESA member governments to carry out the Ariane-5 ME programme to exploit ESA's position on the ISS and to play a leading role in a series of ambitious international deep-space exploration missions.

When asked how much easier it would be to face the council with a Vega triumph in the bag rather than pieces of the rocket in the sea, Bianchi shot back a glance that said it all on a warm Kourou night this week - success can never be guaranteed, but we really do not want to think about failure.