Vega, with Updates, Notches Second Success

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PARIS — Europe’s new Vega small-satellite launch vehicle on May 6 successfully conducted its second launch, a key milestone giving flight-proven status to a new guidance and control system, a new payload adapter and the rocket’s ability to deorbit its upper stage to prevent orbital debris.

The two main payloads — Europe’s 138.2-kilogram Proba-V technology demonstration and vegetation monitoring satellite and Vietnam’s 115-kilogram VNREDSat-1a, Vega’s first commercial passenger — were both reported by their manufacturers to be healthy in orbit.

Word was not immediately available on the in-orbit status of Estonia’s first satellite, the 1.3-kilogram ESTCube technology demonstrator. 

All three satellites were dropped off into sun-synchronous orbit, inclined at 98 degrees relative to the equator, at altitudes of between 600 and 820 kilometers.

The European Space Agency (ESA) said the vehicle’s liquid-fueled Avum upper stage, whose engine is made by KB Yuzhnoye of Ukraine, successfully conducted a fifth and final ignition sequence after the payloads separated, placing itself into an orbit that will assure its atmospheric re-entry within 25 years, in conformance with international debris-mitigation guidelines.

With two very different missions now concluded — the successful inaugural flight in February 2012 followed different orbital parameters without the new avionics and adapter — Vega managers’ attention now shifts to increasing the rocket’s launch rhythm to two, then three per year.

Doing so would permit Vega prime contractor ELV SpA of Italy, a joint venture of Avio and the Italian Space Agency, to reduce unit costs and enable the Arianespace commercial launch consortium to sell Vega on the commercial market for 35 million to 45 million euros ($46 million-$59 million) per launch and make a small profit.

Officials with Evry, France-based Arianespace have said the global market for satellites in Vega’s class is promising but that there is no time to lose in securing Vega’s place in it. Vega is designed to carry mainly science, technology and Earth observation satellites weighing up to 1,500 kilograms into a polar low Earth orbit at 700 kilometers in altitude.

Increasing tempo, reducing cost

ESA officials say Vega will perform two missions in 2014 and may be able to conduct three flights in 2015. The May 6 flight, along with the next four, have been purchased by the 20-nation ESA to launch the agency’s own payloads while giving ELV and Arianespace time to hone the development and launch campaign before full commercial introduction.

Stefano Bianchi, Vega program manager at ESA, said the vehicle’s second launch campaign at Europe’s Guiana Space Center, on the northeast coast of South America, was already more than 20 percent shorter than the inaugural campaign. He said further efficiencies in the time it takes to prepare Vega would be made with each launch.

Reducing Vega’s manufacturing and operating costs has been a major priority for ESA and the Italian Space Agency. The Italian agency is paying about 60 percent of Vega’s development and had to work hard to secure support from other ESA nations. Even today, Germany — Germany and France are ESA’s biggest contributors — is not yet part of the program.

ESA officials have said they are determined to avoid a repeat of their experience with the heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket, which despite posting 54 consecutive launch successes over the past decade still needs annual ESA support payments to permit Arianespace to break even.

The questionable status of several Russian and Ukrainian converted ballistic missiles, which have provided relatively low-cost access to space for well over a decade, has made Vega more credible as a commercial vehicle.

Arianespace and the French space agency, CNES, say Vega’s arrival at the Guiana spaceport will generate Ariane 5 cost savings as well. Launch teams that previously were used only for the Ariane 5 and medium-lift Soyuz rocket, also operated there, will now conduct Vega launches as well, spreading their costs over three vehicles instead of two.

In addition, Vega’s use of solid propellant for its first three stages will spread the cost of building and fueling Ariane 5’s solid-fueled strap-on boosters across two rocket programs, generating synergies.

Vietnam as market indicator

An indication of the current commercial demand for Vega is the fact that the Vietnam Academy for Science and Technology (VAST) and its satellite contractor, Astrium Satellites of Europe, agreed to place the 115-kilogram VNREDSat-1a Earth observation satellite on Vega’s second mission.

Jean Dauphin, Astrium’s director for Earth observation and science, said in a May 3 prelaunch briefing that Astrium had to quicken its VNREDSat-1 development to be able to secure space on the Vega flight. Astrium and VAST signed the VNREDSat-1 contract, valued at 55.2 million euros, in 2010.

The contract included training of Vietnamese engineers in satellite manufacturing processes at Astrium’s Toulouse, France, plant. Vietnam has an ambitious Earth observation satellite program. It has contracted with Japan for one radar satellite, with a follow-on to be built in Vietnam, and is working with Belgium’s Spacebel on a VNREDSat-1b optical Earth observation satellite.

The new Astrium Space Transportation-built Vega payload adapter, called Vespa and modeled on a similar but larger structure used for Ariane 5, housed the VNREDSat-1a satellite and supported Proba-V, which was released first into orbit.

A new ELV-built guidance, navigation and control system was used for the May 6 flight. The inaugural launch featured a French-built avionics suite. The French government had told Italian authorities that French export-control barriers on missile technologies would prevent the French technology’s use on future Vega flights. The French decision had embarrassed ESA and the Vega management team, especially Italian authorities.

Safety first

Vega’s May 3 launch countdown was stopped just 30 minutes before ignition after the last of several weather balloons sent up to verify atmospheric conditions returned data showing 50-kilometer-per-hour winds at 20 kilometers aloft, according to Guiana Space Center Director Bernard Chemoul of CNES.

The problem is not the ability of the rocket to travel through such weather, but rather the safety risk to the local population here in the event the vehicle had to be destroyed because of an unrelated flight malfunction.

The four-stage Vega rocket reaches Max Q — the point of maximum dynamic stress on its structure — some 50 seconds after liftoff, when it has reached an altitude of about 12 kilometers, according to ESA program managers. At that point the vehicle is traveling at a speed of some 2,100 kilometers per hour.

Most Vega missions will launch science and Earth observation satellites into polar orbit, meaning a northward trajectory as opposed to the eastward launch trajectory used for telecommunications satellites heading to geostationary orbit over the equator.

Should the rocket malfunction, it would need to be destroyed, creating multiple pieces of debris. With a strong easterly wind, some of the debris would be blown west, raising the risk of its falling on populated areas here.

One of the advantages of the European spaceport, besides its being near the equator and on French territory, is that vehicles can be launched to the north, the northeast and the east, all over Atlantic Ocean without overflying populated areas.

CNES President Jean-Yves Le Gall said it is not uncommon at this time of year for high-level winds to remain over the launch base for several days without interruption.