WASHINGTON — In a vote of confidence for a troubled launch vehicle, Arianespace won a contract from the Italian government for up to three Vega C launches of an Earth observation constellation.
Arianespace announced March 14 it signed a contract with the European Space Agency, acting on behalf of the Italian government, for launching the IRIDE constellation of imaging satellites. The contract includes two firm Vega C launches, starting in late 2025, with an option for a third.
The IRIDE constellation, funded by the Italian government, will include 36 satellites built by a consortium of Italian companies that will be equipped with a range of imaging payloads, including optical and radar. The constellation is named after the Italian word for iris.
The value of the launch contract was not disclosed. The overall IRIDE system, including satellites, launch and ground systems, is estimated at 1.3 billion euros ($1.38 billion) and is funded by Italy’s National Plan for Recovery and Resilience, or PNRR, an initiative by the Italian government to help the country recover from the pandemic.
The announcement is the first contract for the Vega C announced since the completion of the investigation into the December 2022 launch failure on the vehicle’s second mission, destroying two Airbus imaging satellites. That investigation concluded that a carbon-carbon component of the nozzle of the rocket’s second stage solid-fuel motor degraded after ignition, causing a loss of thrust that doomed the rocket.
With this contract “ESA repays the trust of the Italian government while confirming its confidence in Arianespace and in the Vega C launch system,” said Simonetta Cheli, director of Earth observation at ESA, in a statement. ESA is supporting the Italian government on the development of IRIDE.
During a panel at the Satellite 2023 conference here March 15, Stéphane Israël, chief executive of Arianespace, confirmed plans announced earlier in the month to return the Vega C to flight by the end of the year with launch of the Sentinel-1C radar imaging satellite for Europe’s Copernicus program. That will be preceded by a launch of the original Vega vehicle, likely by late summer.
“We are very mobilized with our partners to make sure that Vega will be a success,” he said, referring to a team that includes Avio, the prime contractor for Vega, as well as ESA.
With this contract, he noted that Vega C’s backlog was now at 15 launches. He added that there were “commercial negotiations ongoing” for the vehicle as well with unidentified customers.
The launch contract was one of the few revealed during the conference, which traditionally had served as a stage for announcing major satellite and launch deals. Colorado-based EOI Space, formerly known as Earth Observant Inc., announced March 14 it extended an earlier contract with SpaceX for rideshare launches of its Stingray constellation of imaging satellites.
EOI Space said that it will now launch its first six Stingray satellites, designed to operate in very low Earth orbits to improve imaging resolution, on Transporter rideshare missions starting in 2024. The company said last September it would launch its first satellite in 2023 on a Transporter mission.
“Demand for rapid transmissions of higher-resolution Earth imagery has skyrocketed in recent years,” said Christopher Thein, chief executive of EOI Space, in a statement. “We’re proud to be pioneering our first satellites through SpaceX’s renowned rideshare program.”
EOI plans to ultimately launch a 60-satellite constellation, but has not disclosed plans or schedules for deployment of that complete constellation.