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Vega maiden launch goes to plan

The European Space Agency successfully launched its new small launcher, Vega, on 13 February with an apparently perfect flight from its space port in Kourou, French Guiana.

Lift-off, at the start of the 10.00-13.00GMT launch window, was followed by successful deployment of the main payload (Italy's LARES scientific satellite) after 52mins at 1,450km altitude, followed by the secondary payload - experimental satellite engineering platform Almasat-1 - and the tertiary payload of nine cubesats built by university research departments.

Controllers considered calling the launch off owing to weather, an unusual event in Kourou, as cloud cover restricted visibility and they wanted to be able to carefully observe performance during the early minutes of this maiden flight. However, in the event the flight appears to have gone perfectly to plan.

The launch, originally planned for 26 January, had to take place in the French Guiana morning, in order to keep LARES out of direct sunlight as long as possible before deployment. But while there remained some days' leeway, the flight could not have been pushed back many days, as ESA needs to launch Ariane 5 on 9 March to carry its third Automated Transfer Vehicle robotic supply ship to the International Space Station.

Kourou could handle both flights more or less simultaneously, but the two rockets will follow similar trajectories and thus share the same set of ground stations, including some tracking equipment aboard ships that are today in place for the Vega launch but must be repositioned before the ATV flight. Traffic to the ISS is heavy, so 9 March - give or take a day for normal launch delays - is a non-negotiable slot.

Vega has been nine years in the works, and will give ESA exceptional flexibility in its operations. The rocket's sweet spot is to place a 1.5T payload into a 750km orbit, ideal for Earth observation or scientific missions. Soyuz can loft 3T to the very high geosynchronous orbits - its first Kourou payload was a pair of Galileo navigation satellites. Ariane 5 is much bigger, ideal for up to 10T to geosynchronous orbits or heavy loads to the Space Station.

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