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Rocket launch failure may have been a simple human error

Published Nov 18th, 2020 4:57PM EST
vega rocket failure
Image: Reid Wiseman/NASA

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  • A preliminary investigation into the failure of a Vega rocket launched on Monday suggests human error was the cause.
  • The rocket’s upper stage likely suffered from mismatched cables, causing it to veer in the opposite direction it was supposed to.
  • The rocket failure destroyed both satellites that were onboard.

On Monday night, a Vega rocket launched by France’s Arianespace failed shortly after liftoff. The rocket was destroyed, along with its payload of two orbiters — the SEOSAT-Ingenio and Taranis satellites — and it was the second time a Vega launch ended in disaster in the last three launch attempts.

Now, an initial investigation of what went wrong suggests that the failure was the result of some very unfortunate human error. As Spaceflight Now reports, engineers reviewing the data from the launch and subsequent failure concluded that it’s like that a pair of cables were inverted, and not being attached to the right points in the rocket’s upper stage led to the total loss of the spacecraft and its payload.

According to the report, which quotes Arianespace chief technical office Roland Lagier, cables that were attached to the thrust vector control actuators on the rocket’s upper stage were inverted. This is a mistake that would have happened during assembly and was apparently not caught during any inspections of the work done after the fact.

The inverted cables resulted in signals intended to produce a directional change actually doing the exact opposite. Those adjustments caused the engineers to lose control of the rocket and it tumbled, which is a death sentence for anything heading for space. The rocket had flown for roughly eight minutes before this issue popped up and the spacecraft was ultimately destroyed.

This is a bummer for Arianespace, but it’s an even bigger bummer for the clients whose satellites were destroyed as a result of the mismatched cables. The SEOSAT-Ingenio was being sent to space for Spain and was designed to peer back down at Earth and relay important observations, while the Taranis satellite from France was built to detect and study “mysterious electrical discharges from thunderstorms,” according to Spaceflight Now.

The good news — if there is any to be found in this unfortunate story — is that Arianespace believes that the rocket failure is not at all linked to the failure of its other Vega rocket last year. Calling Monday’s launch failure a “quality and production issue,” CEO Stéphane Israël said that the company is “looking at all processes to better understand why this integration mistake was not corrected.” Adding “We will be 100% transparent.”

The investigation is, of course, not fully completed at this point, but based on what the engineers have discovered so far, it appears as though the cause of the rocket failure has been well established. We’ll have to wait and see if anything else pops up, but for now, this one looks like an unfortunate accident.

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