Avio eyes larger chunk of smallsat launch market

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WASHINGTON — The light-lift Vega rocket is Europe’s vehicle of choice for small satellites, but has mainly launched spacecraft weighing hundreds of kilograms. While that’s smaller than what Arianespace normally launches on an Ariane 5 or Soyuz, it’s not the “small” that people generally think of when they think smallsats.

Last week, Arianespace signed a contract with smallsat rideshare organizer Spaceflight Industries of Seattle to conduct two Vega launches with a new adaptor for cubesats and microsats. The first of those launches is expected no sooner than 2019.

Spaceflight will line up the passengers for the Small Spacecraft Mission System (SSMS), an adapter developed by the European Space Agency to accommodate 10 to 15 smallsats ranging from single-digit-kilogram cubesats to microsats up to 400 kilograms.

The contract is a significant achievement for Arianespace and Vega’s manufacturer Avio of Colleferro, Italy, which have watched as Spaceflight booked numerous small satellites on U.S., Indian and Russian rockets — including the Russian-operated version of the Soyuz that Arianespace launches from Kourou.

Vega has launched 11 times since debuting in 2012, and has three missions slated for this year. The rocket, largely promoted by the Italian Space Agency, cemented its place in Europe’s future when the European Space Agency in 2014 decided on Ariane 6 and Vega C as Europe’s next generation of launch vehicles. When Ariane 6 launches in 2020, it will use the same P120C solid propellant engine for its strap-on boosters as Vega C does for its first stage, enabling Avio to increase production and lower cost through scale. Vega C’s first flight is scheduled for 2019.  

Avio CEO Giulio Ranzo spoke with SpaceNews Staff Writer Caleb Henry about the Spaceflight deal and upcoming Vega developments.

Spaceflight said Vega’s pricing is getting more competitive, which led them to book two SSMS launches. What is Avio doing to lower the price of Vega launches?

Avio is working actively to optimize launch cost by increasing average flight rate, reducing unit cost of both launcher and optimizing efficiency of ground operations. On Vega C the commonality of the first stage with Ariane 6 provides an important opportunity for cost reduction.

We are flexible to arrange via Arianespace interesting deals with customers who have a need to stay on schedule and not wait for a long time before they launch.

How many SSMS missions do you hope to launch per year?  

We plan on launching SSMS (which is a “dedicated ride share” for 10-15 customers max) once or twice a year. However, if we have excess demand or schedule slippage on any of the customers, we have the flexibility to accommodate them on the next upcoming flight in “piggyback mode” via our diversified suite of adapters (SSMS, Vespa and Vampire) allowing to combine a main payload with a set of quadpacks/cubesats and/or microsats in different configurations. Note that SSMS features a modular architecture so it is possible also to launch a fraction of it, not necessarily an entire pack.

Why was SSMS’s debut delayed from 2018 to 2019?

It’s largely due to customer commitments which are varying every week.

It’s something similar to what Spaceflight has experienced in the past. The smallsat customers change their minds continuously. Not all of them have solid and robust funding so they find it hard to commit to precise launch dates and to commit to downpayments. It makes it very difficult to aggregate all the payloads to launch on one date.

Eventually we need to say the train is leaving the station, and whoever has paid the ticket will be on board. That is part of the challenge with small payloads.

Last year Avio had 18 million euros in debt. Now you have 42 million euros in the bank. Is this from last year’s stock exchange listing?

Yes, that is correct. The effect of the listing was also to bring more cash to our availability, and that amount is still in our bank account.

Do you have plans for what you want to do with that capital?

We might use that for a small acquisition. We might use that to accelerate some of the investments on the new products that we have in our pipeline. We will see in the next few months. It’s obviously good firepower to have, because the industry is moving very rapidly, so if you want to execute on an investment you need to have financial resources available. That is very important to us.

Was Avio involved in the investigation into the January Ariane 5 trajectory deviation?

No, not at all. For Ariane 5 we are essentially a supplier of solid rocket motors, and the motors worked perfectly so we had no involvement whatsoever.

Did it have any impact on you otherwise?

No.

Vega’s next mission is ESA’s Aeolus wind-observing satellite. When will it launch?

I expect we will squeeze the next flight sometime in summer, but I can’t tell you whether it is going to be September or August or when.

We have very busy weeks for the launch pad because we are executing some extraordinary maintenance work to repurpose partly the launch pad facility for Vega C. To make a long story short, we’ve been installing a new crane, because to integrate Vega C on the launch pad we need a crane to lift heavier loads.

The launcher is a little bit higher and heavier so we need to stretch the launch pad tower to allow for integration and then adapt some of the electronic equipment.

Are these launch pad upgrades causing delays, or were the missions already planned around them?

They were planned around.

Is this investment being led by the spaceport’s owner, CNES?

No, it’s largely us, because this all new equipment is designed by us, installed by us and so on. CNES is the host.

In Kourou there is a super-complex situation where CNES is the owner of the site, then some of the assets are owned by the European Space Agency, and some are owned by Arianespace, but in the end, they are now moving toward industry’s responsibility.

We are taking more expense in the activities and responsibilities to make sure that we properly control cost and execution. This is a new set up that we have jointly agreed with all the parties involved: ArianeGroup, Arianespace, CNES and ESA. In 2016 we agreed we would reshape the allocation of responsibilities.

Do you have an estimate of how much it will cost to complete?

We are talking about a couple tens of millions of euros, so it is not a huge figure.

ESA’s Future Launcher Preparatory Program gave Avio and the Italian Space Agency’s joint venture company European Launch Vehicle two study contracts to look into smaller launch vehicles. What’s next from those?

We are executing on this study and making good progress. We think we have smart ideas how to design build and operate a micro-launcher, capitalizing on all the experience we have done with Vega, so largely basing that on solid propulsion. Compared to other players, we benefit from the fact that we already are somewhat closer to that market segment and have several technologies that have already been successfully tested in flight. We can partly reuse some of those technologies for a micro-launcher. For other parts we are thinking about disruptive ideas that can very substantially reduce the cost.

What price will you aim for?

What we are thinking for capability is between 250 and 300 kilograms in low Earth orbit, but pricing will depend on what type of performance we need to offer and where. Low Earth orbit means everything and nothing. Are we talking 300 kilometers or are we talking 600 kilometers? Are we talking sun-synchronous, or other low Earth orbits? Depending on that we are still working on the right level of pricing. We have not yet finalized what type of price point we would like to be able offer.