This story is hard to believe but true: The Italian company Avio, one of the subcontractors for Arianespace that builds its smaller rockets Vega and Vega-C, apparently misplaced two rocket tanks that were to be used on the Vega rocket’s last launch, thus preventing that launch entirely.
The two propellant tanks that went missing were housed in an Avio production department in Colleferro that had undergone renovation work. At some point following the completion of the renovations, the two tanks were found to be missing.
According to the initial source, the tanks had not been entered into a company-wide asset management system that tracked the location of all vital Avio components. This ensured that the teams tasked with investigating the disappearance had very little to go on when beginning their search for the missing tanks.
Despite the futility of the search, the tanks were eventually found. This was, however, not the good news Avio had hoped for. The tanks are, unfortunately, not in a usable state. They had been crushed and were found alongside metal scraps in a landfill.
The tanks power Vega’s fourth stage that deploys satellites in orbit. They were to be used on the final flight of Vega, which has been delayed repeatedly for unexplained reasons. We now know the reason.
Because this was the final flight, however, the tanks cannot be replaced because the Vega production line has been shut down. The company is considering using two of the four qualification tanks first built more than a decade ago when Vega was first being tested, but those were test tanks and have been sitting unused for as long. It will be difficult to determine their reliability.
Europe’s government-run rocket program thus at present has no rocket capable of launching. Its Ariane-5 is retired. Its Vega cannot launch. Its Vega-C, which replaces the Vega, remains grounded due to a launch failure in December 2022, with the next launch expected no earlier than late in 2024. And its new Ariane-6 rocket won’t do its first launch until the summer of 2024, at the earliest.
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