BERLIN (AP) — The European Space Agency on Wednesday celebrated the first flight of its Vega-C rocket designed to provide more bang for customers' buck in the increasingly competitive business of launching satellites into orbit.
Vega-C is an upgrade to the Vega rocket that made its debut in 2012 as a launcher specializing in lifting small payloads into space.
The new rocket will be able to carry heavier payloads than its predecessor while burning less fuel.
ESA says Vega-C will be particularly useful for launching Earth observation satellites, but it is also envisaged as the carrier for Space Rider, an uncrewed robotic laboratory that will be the agency's first re-usable space vehicle.
The 35-meter (115-feet) tall rocket's launch from French Guiana was twice delayed shortly before liftoff due to technical problems, but succeeded on the third attempt.
Vega-C accelerates much faster than its big brother Ariane 5, ESA's workhorse heavy launcher, reaching a speed of 16,000 kilometers per hour (almost 10,000 mph) within two minutes of launch.
It released an Italian-made satellite called LARES-2 — shaped similar to a giant disco ball — that will act as a target for a ground-based laser station.
The head of ESA has announced a series of ambitious new projects and missions as Europe tries to compete with the United States, China and new rivals from the private sector in the growing space business.