ESA pours $107 million into Vega E and a reusable spaceplane

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Updated Dec. 1. at 8:12 a.m. Eastern.

WASHINGTON — The European Space Agency today committed 89.7 million euros ($106.7 million) split between a new advanced iteration of the Vega launcher and the successor to a spaceplane demonstrator that flew in 2015.

Italy’s space industry, notably Vega’s manufacturer Avio and Thales Alenia Space Italy, will both lead consortiums for Vega E and Space Rider, respectively.

Avio told SpaceNews Dec. 1 that both the Vega E and Space Rider contracts are a first tranche for their overall development.

Avio’s contract for Vega E — short for Vega Evolution — is worth 53 million euros, and jumpstarts development of the new launcher alongside Vega C, which has yet to fly. The company will be working on both rockets concurrently, with Vega C holding to a 2019 maiden launch, and Vega E’s first flight projected in 2024.

Building both rockets simultaneously is possible because Vega E is based largely on the same building blocks as Vega C, but with three stages instead of four, and a “Europeanized” upper stage instead of a Ukrainian stage. During a Nov. 22 briefing with reporters, an official with ESA —Avio’s customer for Vega C and Vega E — said the reason for bifurcating the next generation of Vega into two launchers was because the agency could not meet both short term and long term goals with one rocket. A reasonable short term goal, according to Giorgio Tumino, Vega and Space Rider development programs manager at ESA’s Space Transportation Development, was to increase the amount of payload Vega can heft into orbit.

“We have a need to increase the Vega performances today, and in the shorter term,” he said.

Vega C can lift 2,300 kilograms to low Earth orbit, about 800 kilograms more than the current iteration of Vega.

ESA’s other objective “is to Europeanize what is not European,” Tumino said, referring to the Ukraine-supplied Attitude and Vernier Upper Module (AVUM) that Vega uses today and will continue with an upgraded version for Vega C. “The development of the upper stage engine is not something you can do in three to four years.”

Vega E’s upper stage takes the place of AVUM and the Zefiro-9 third stage. Based on liquid oxygen and methane instead of a bipropellant with unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) as the fuel and nitrogen tetroxide (NTO) as the oxidant, Vega E will be more environmentally friendly according to ESA and Avio. The new upper stage will also be able to reignite more often, making more orbital maneuvers possible.

Tumino said as some technologies are matured for Vega E, they will be incorporated into Vega C as well.

Space Rider

ESA awarded 36.7 million split between Avio and Thales Alenia Space Italy for Space Rider, an unmanned spaceplane capable of lifting 800 kilograms to LEO for missions up to two months. A single Space Rider should be capable of six missions with refurbishing, according to Thales Alenia Space.

Space Rider leverages technology from ESA’s Intermediate Experimental Vehicle (IXV), which performed a suborbital mission in  February 2015, landing in the Pacific Ocean. Unlike its predecessor, Space Rider is designed for ground landings.

ESA tasked Thales Alenia Space with building Space Rider’s reentry module based on the IXV.

ELV, a 70-30 joint venture Avio has with the Italian Space Agency, will create a service module derived from Vega C’s upgraded AVUM. That module includes solar panels to provide in-space power for Space Rider while in orbit, and to subsequently deorbit at the end of the mission.  

Hinting at potential future applications of Space Rider, Thales Alenia Space Italy CEO Donato Amoroso said the vehicle paves “the way to larger and more challenging applications, including reusable stages, point-to-point flights, spaceplanes and even space tourism,” in a Nov. 30 statement.

Space Rider’s first flight is planned for 2020, following which ESA hopes to set the vehicle on a path to privatization by 2025.