ESA Confirms Vega Tanks Missing: Theft or Asymmetric Warfare?9th Dec 2023
Update 14th December:
ESA has confirmed to Andrew Parsonson that “there is an issue” with the tanks for ESA’s last Vega-C flight. A workaround solution to the missing tanks is in process.
Parson posted the confirmation in the European Spaceflight feed on LinkedIn.
South African writer Andrew Parsonson broke the story on 4th December about Avio and some missing propellent tanks. The story revealed thus far borders on the incredible or absurd, especially when those tanks are for the fourth stage of the final Vega AVUM vehicle. Given the unusual circumstances, it is worthwhile reconsidering the event. Considering that much of the stage is built in Ukraine, the spectre of asymmetric warfare on the part of Russia and its sympathizers needs to be considered.
The reporting thus far
According to Parsonson, multiple sources have independently confirmed to him that two propellent tanks for the last Vega AVUM fourth stage were found in a landfill, and in an unusable state. The exact details on the tanks’ removal from an Avio warehouse in Colleferro, near Rome, and their arrival in the landfill are not known. However, Parsonson did find out that the tanks were not included in a recent inventory conducted as part of the process of separating Avio from ESA. This lack of a paper trail complicates the reconstruction of events.
The two spherical tanks stolen are part of a complement of four that fit inside the Vega AVUM fourth stage. The stage stands 1.74 meters tall and 1.9 meters across, and also houses a Ukrainian built RD-869 UDMH/NTO liquid-fueled engine.
Was it theft or warfare?
While Avio is trying to find a workaround to the loss of the two irreplaceable propellent tanks, the question of why these tanks in particular rears its head. Simple theft or ignorance cannot be ruled out, but there is a possibility that needs to be taken into consideration.
Relations between Roscosmos and other agencies have hit all-time lows since the beginning of the Russians’ broad-scale invasion of Ukraine. Commercial relations are no better, and the theft of OneWeb satellites totaling £200m that had been delivered to Russia for launch from Baikanour is only an example.
In other fields, we can see ‘mischief’ as a weapon, and one example there is the cutting of undersea cables by a Russian-owned (though Hong Kong registered) ship in the Baltic Sea this past Autumn.
The event certainly points to problems with security at Avio. On a broader scale, however, and even if this incident had no foreign connections, it can serve as notice for space-industry companies that astropolitics can be a factor, and that earthside security is a vital element to any astropolitical policy.