Europe's Vega rocket lifts off for first flight

Posted by Emma Woollacott

Europe's new Vega rocket has successfully lifted off from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana, taking nine satellites into orbit.

The billion-dollar rocket is designed to take small payloads - 2.5 tons and under - into orbit, complementing the more powerful Ariane 5 and Soyus spacecraft.

The 100-foot, four stage rocket took off on its 90-minute inaugural flight early this morning.

Its payload includes Italy's Laser Relativity Satellite (Lares), designed to study the Lense–Thirring effect, whereby the Earth twists spacetime as it rotates. At 860 pounds, it's the biggest satellite on board.

The others include ALMA-Sat-1, a 27.5-pound microsatellite that's being tested for future missions such as Earth observation, along with seven CubeSats, 2.2-pound nanosatellites.

Unlike other spacecraft, Vega can release its satellites into different  orbits. Lares will be first to go, at around 900 miles above the earth. Vega will then descend to 217 miles to release the rest.

"The flight will qualify the overall Vega system, including the vehicle, the ground infrastructure and operations, from the launch campaign to the payload separation and disposal of the upper module.mIn particular, it will demonstrate the vehicle’s performance and payload services," says the European Space Agency.

"Vega will provide Europe with a safe, reliable and competitive capacity to carry science and Earth observation satellites into orbit, perfectly complementing the heavy Ariane 5 and medium Soyuz rockets already launched from the spaceport."