Vega Launches Sentinel-2A Observation Satellite

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PARIS — Europe’s Vega small-satellite launcher on June 22 successfully launched the Sentinel 2A optical Earth observation satellite, the second in the European Commission’s Sentinel series of environment-monitoring payloads built for its Copernicus program.

Operating from Europe’s Guiana Space Center on the northeast coast of South America, the four-stage Vega rocket successfully released the 1,130-kilogram Sentinel-2A about 55 minutes after liftoff.

The 22-nation European Space Agency and Sentinel-2A manufacturer Airbus Defence and Space of Europe said the satellite was healthy in orbit and had deployed its solar arrays.

Sentinel-2A will operate for at least 7.25 years in a planned 786-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit inclined at 98.5 degrees relative to the equator. It has enough fuel that, assuming routine operations, it can continue to function for at least 12 years and retain enough propellant to assure it is removed from orbit upon retirement.

The satellite’s principal instrument is an optical system with 13 spectral bands delivering imagery with a ground resolution of 10 meters and a swath width of 290 kilometers. An identical Sentinel 2B is under construction and scheduled for launch in mid-2016 — it will be placed in the same orbit but 180 degrees separated from Sentinel 2A to reduce time between revisits of a given geographic area.

Sentinel-1A, launched in April 2014 aboard a Europeanized Russian Soyuz rocket, carries a radar imager. An identical twin of Sentinel-1A is scheduled for launch in 2016.

The Copernicus program, with technical management by ESA but owned by the executive commission of the 18-nation European Union, expects to launch 14 Sentinel satellites and additional Sentinel instruments on six European meteorological satellites. The data will be distributed free of charge as part of a European policy seeking to stimulate downstream value-added Earth observation-related businesses.

The arrival of the Sentinels at one time was considered a threat to several small Europe-based Earth observation satellite operators, but that concern has dissipated as these companies report continued high demand for their imagery.

Sentinel-2A launch
Vega rocket lifts off with Sentinel-2A satellite. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace/Service Optique CSG – S. Martin

Deimos Imaging of Madrid, Spain – which just announced plans to sell its two satellites to UrtheCast Corp. of Canada as part of a partnership in Earth observation – said its sales are booming despite the imminent arrival of the Sentinels.

“The Sentinel-2A was supposed to be our death notice, but we expect 2015 to be our best year ever for our Deimos-1 satellite,” Deimos Space Managing Director Miguel Bello Mora said in a June 23 interview. “People get the impression that there are constellations of Earth observation satellites being built everywhere, but for now it is not so easy to get your hands on good imagery.”

With the Sentinel-2A launch success, the Italian-led Vega rocket program has posted five successes in its first five missions. Its inaugural flight occurred in February 2012. The June 22 launch was the second of a planned three Vega campaigns for 2015.

The Evry, France-based Arianespace launch consortium, which markets Vega alongside the medium-lift Europeanized Russian Soyuz rocket and Europe’s heavy-lift Ariane 5 vehicle, is attempting to increase Vega’s launch rate to three per year to reduce per-launch costs.

But while costs are expected to come down as Vega prime contractor Avio SpA of Colleferro, Italy, increases the production rate, Arianespace apparently has been able to raise Vega launch prices.

Arianespace Chief Executive Stephane Israel said June 16 that two years ago the company had four Vega launches in its backlog, for four satellites, with a total value of about 130 million euros ($173 million at mid-2013 exchange rates), or 32.5 million euros per launch. But in what may be an effect of the rise of the U.S. dollar against the euro, the company’s Vega backlog as of mid June was 11 Vega launch campaigns, for a total of 13 satellites, with a total value of 400 million euros, or 36.4 million euros per launch, he said.

With the approval of European governments, Arianespace and its industrial contractors, led by Airbus Safran Launchers, are reorganizing Europe’s launch sector as part of a 10-year effort in which ESA governments have agreed to invest some 8 billion euros. That figure includes annual price-support payments to Arianespace for the Ariane 5 rocket, and development of a new Ariane 6, whose first flight is scheduled for 2020.

The investment also includes increasing by 20 percent the payload-carrying power of Vega from the current 1,500 kilograms into a 700-kilometer polar low Earth orbit. Vega’s first stage will be enlarged and will also serve as the strap-on booster for Ariane 6, which will carry two boosters for the lighter Ariane 62 and four with the more-commercially oriented Ariane 64 variant.