PARIS — Europe’s Vega small-satellite launcher could be sold profitably on the global market for between 35 million and 45 million euros ($46 million to $59 million) per mission given the current evolution in the global supply of this class of rocket, the Arianespace commercial launch consortium has concluded.
The new price estimates, which are higher than previous goals for Vega, reflect the fact that the questionable availability and rising prices of Russian and Ukrainian ballistic missiles converted into space launch vehicles are making them less attractive.
Customers that have been awaiting launches on the Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr converted missile, for example, have said the vehicle’s immediate availability, along with its future as a commercial launch option, are unclear.
The Italian-led Vega — Italy is paying nearly 60 percent of the vehicle’s total development cost — is a European Space Agency (ESA) program that made its inaugural flight in February 2012. It was a success.
The next flight, scheduled for May 2 from Europe’s Guiana Space Center in French Guiana, will be carrying ESA’s Belgium-led Proba-V Earth observation satellite and a first commercial payload, the 120-kilogram VNRED-1a Earth observation satellite for the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology.
The Vietnamese satellite is Vega’s first commercial payload, illustrating the rocket’s market potential even before it is fully qualified.
In a press briefing on the upcoming flight, ESA and Arianespace officials said the mission is designed to demonstrate Vega’s new payload-separation unit, which permits one satellite to sit atop another and to be released separately into orbit. A similar but larger structure is used for dual satellite launches of Europe’s heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket.
The upcoming launch will also demonstrate a new Vega guidance and control unit, designed in Italy, to replace the French avionics used on the first flight. France has declined to provide Italy’s Avio, the Vega prime contractor, access to the guidance system, which France views as militarily sensitive.
The second Vega flight will also demonstrate the ability of the rocket’s Avum upper stage to conduct five-ignition and coast phases, ending with the active deorbiting of the stage to bring Vega into conformance with voluntary space debris-mitigation guidelines.
Stefano Bianchi, Vega program director at ESA, said the five-ignition sequence, the new payload adaptor and the stage deorbit combine to make Vega’s second flight more complicated than the first. Bianchi said demonstrating the mission flexibility of Vega is one of the goals of ESA’s Verta program, which includes five Vega flights after the inaugural launch.
The second launch also includes a new telemetry and tracking ground station in a different location to avoid the telemetry disruption that occurred in the inaugural flight, when the plume from the rocket’s solid-fueled second stage blinded the ground antennas trained on the rocket for several seconds.
The new ground station will be located in northern French Guiana, a French overseas department, a bit farther from the spaceport than the two stations that supported the first launch. The Guiana Space Center spaceport, on South America’s northeast coast, is Europe’s spaceport.
Vega is designed to lift a 1,500-kilogram satellite payload into a 700-kilometer low Earth orbit inclined at 90 degrees relative to the equator. Bianchi said the inaugural flight in 2012 proved that Vega is already within 3 percent of its performance goals. He said the decision to systematically deorbit the upper stage would reduce Vega’s performance by about 50 kilograms.
ESA is considering various options for increasing Vega’s performance and replacing the current Ukrainian-built Avum liquid-fueled upper stage with a European-built upper stage.
Vega’s main market is government science, technology and Earth observation satellites.
But Louis Laurent, Arianespace senior vice president for programs, said Arianespace is beginning to see possible telecommunications missions as part of Vega’s future.
Laurent said during the briefing that Evry, France-based Arianespace would like Vega’s launch rate to increase to three per year as soon as possible to take advantage of what he said is a favorable global market for this class of vehicle.
Increasing the production and launch rate, Laurent said, would drive down Vega’s production cost to a level at which Arianespace could sell the rocket for 35 million to 45 million euros per launch without losing money.
Bianchi said the Vega team, with ELV SpA of Italy as prime contractor, has already succeeded in reducing the launch preparation duration by more than 20 percent compared to the first flight — one of many program elements that will be made more efficient to reduce costs, he said.
ESA Approves $190M in New Spending on Ariane and Vega Launchers