This article originally ran in the Dec. 4 issue of SpaceNews Magazine.
Designers of Europe’s light-lift Vega rocket are creating a slew of new products intended to lure prospective customers away from India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle and to fend off the coming wave of launch startups that are developing dedicated rockets for cubesats and other small satellites.
Avio’s product mix includes a suite of advanced offerings meant to challenge PSLV on grounds other than price — a factor both Avio and the European Space Agency admit plays to India’s advantage — as well as a possible “mini-launcher” variant, to perform dedicated missions for cubesats and larger but still low-mass satellites.
“I don’t think we can ever make a launcher the size of Vega for the price of what they do in India,” said Avio CEO Giulio Ranzo, citing Europe’s higher labor costs and stringent environmental regulations. “But I think we can differentiate ourselves by providing a more sophisticated, more performing service that’s more accurate, more reliable, more flexible, etc.”
Ranzo briefed reporters during a Nov. 22 media event at Avio’s rocket factory near Rome. Avio covered travel expenses for journalists to attend the event.
The Indian Space Research Organisation’s PLSV is Vega’s No. 1 competitor. Both rockets are designed to launch roughly the same size payloads to low Earth orbit. Though mostly used for domestic missions, PSLV has launched Vega-class satellites weighing several hundred kilograms, and has gained a favored status among comercial smallsat operators as a go-to rideshare opportunity. PSLV had its first failure in 20 years Aug. 31 when its payload fairing failed to separate, preventing a navigation satellite from releasing into orbit. A return-to-flight mission is slated for January.
Vega has launched 11 times since debuting in 2012, all of which were successful. Arianespace of Evry, France, which markets Vega along with Soyuz and the Ariane 5, launched three Vega rockets this year, and in September ordered six more Vega and four next-generation Vega C’s from Avio in anticipation of future business.
Avio and Arianespace are seeking a commitment by European governments to launch at least twice a year using Vega C, which can carry 2,300 kilograms to low Earth orbit — about 800 kilograms more than today’s Vega. ESA officials said Vega C will be stable with a minimum of three, but preferably three to four missions per year. Ranzo said Vega can launch four times a year, but he wants to be able to launch up to six times, and that launches are currently booked out to 2021.
While Vega C and the P120 engine it shares with the Ariane 6 strap-on boosters are Avio’s core focus today, the company is actively weighing a scaled-down version of Vega that would compete directly with launchers in development at Virgin Orbit, Rocket Lab and other commercial ventures focused on dedicated missions for payloads weighing a few hundred kilograms or less.
Ettore Scardecchia, Avio’s head of engineering and product development, said Avio has an advantage over newcomers in that the company already has the essential components for a “Vega C Light.”
“Our idea is that if we are able to develop a system that is really a downscale of Vega C, we will have also the economy of scale to guarantee it because we use the same pieces in both cases,” he explained.
Vega C Light would likely forgo the P120 engine, he said. Other modifications would follow to make the Light version work without that stage to launch around 250 kilograms to low Earth orbit.
Scardecchia said Avio doesn’t know how many Vega C Light missions would occur per year, as the project is still in a study phase, but is confident demand exists. Several customer discussions around Avio’s current launcher family started with operators that first sought rideshares, a secondary position on a rocket to “piggyback” to orbit along the way, he said.
Rideshares give secondary customers little ability to control where exactly their spacecraft are inserted into orbit, and makes them beholden to the schedule of the primary customer. Operators that want specific orbits, need more timely missions, or both, could opt for the Light vehicle, Scardecchia said.
With Vega C Light, Avio and Arianespace would also be able to offer missions to a wider range of inclinations, a perk Scardecchia said is of interest to Earth-observation companies that want their satellites to cover the planet’s more-populated areas. If Avio pursues the mini-launcher, it would want to have the system ready by 2020 or 2021, he said.
SSMS, Space Rider and VENUS
ESA also wants to expand the number of missions Vega and Vega C are capable of performing. In a separate press event the same day, agency officials detailed three programs — all more advanced than Vega C Light — aimed at diversifying Vega missions.
The first, the Small Spacecraft Mission Service, SSMS, is tracking for a proof-of-concept flight in late 2018 or early 2019, according to Renato Lafranconi, Vega Exploitation Programme manager in ESA’s Exploitation and Launch Range Department.
SSMS is an adapter for cubesats as well as larger smallsats (up to 400 kilograms) to fly on Vega. Lafranconi said ESA expects one SSMS mission per year once operational, including the use of SSMS adapters to create rideshare options on missions with larger satellites.
Building off ESA’s Intermediate Experimental Vehicle (IXV) spaceplane demonstration in 2015, the agency wants Vega C to launch a more advanced version called Space Rider that can carry 800 kilograms to space for missions up to two months in duration.
“We want to create the opportunity to bring payloads up to orbit, operate these payloads in orbit for a variety of applications which go from microgravity experimentation, in-orbit demonstration, in-orbit validation for Earth observation, science, robotic exploration — then be able to deorbit, come down and be ready for next flight with a reusable module,” said Giorgio Tumino, Vega and Space Rider Development Programmes manager at ESA’s Space Transportation Development Department.
Tumino said Vega C will need an upgraded fourth stage equipped with solar panels to provide additional power for Space Rider missions. The first flight is planned for 2020, followed by operational missions in 2021.
Further out than SSMS and Space Rider is VENUS, the Vega Electric Nudge Upper Stage, an advanced electrically propelled system that could take satellites from LEO to medium, highly elliptical or even geostationary transfer orbits. Tumino said ESA and industry officials debate how VENUS would be used, but some see applications such as launching multiple small telecom satellites with Vega in a manner that would make them competitive with a single, large geostationary spacecraft.
Beyond these three programs, ESA is also working with Avio on Vega E, a three-stage version of Vega slated for 2024 that would use an Italian-made upper stage instead of the current Ukrainian version. Tumino said Vega E, in addition to being much more flexible than Vega C in delivering satellites to a wider variety of orbits, will include technologies that could not be completed in the timeline for Vega C, for which the first launch remains on track for 2019.