Avio gets ESA assurance for transition missions from Vega to Vega C

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WASHINGTON — The European Space Agency’s April launcher agreement that convinced ArianeGroup to start mass production of the Ariane 6 also provided missions for the Avio-led Vega C rocket.

Giulio Ranzo, CEO of Avio, the Colleferro, Italy, company that builds the Vega and future Vega C, said the ESA council session included missions for both Avio-built rockets during the transition years to Vega C.

“A number of European government flights have been granted to Ariane 6, and a number are being granted to Vega — Vega C, largely,” Ranzo said in a May 7 interview at the Satellite 2019 conference. “There are a total of eight government missions between 2020 and 2023, so a couple of missions a year.”

Vega C is designed to carry 2,200 kilograms to a 700-kilometer low Earth orbit — about 700 kilograms more than the Vega rocket used today. Its maiden flight is scheduled for March 2020, Ranzo said.

Ranzo said Vega C never faced a work stoppage, unlike the Ariane 6 program, which didn’t start full-scale production until recently due to a lack of assured demand from European governments.

The difference, he said, is that Vega C is a less expensive rocket, and that commercial demand was sufficient for Avio to confidently move forward with launcher production.

In a May 10 email, Ranzo said the eight missions are a mix of ESA, European Commission and individual European national spacecraft, with the exact mix and schedule still to be determined.

Ranzo said Avio has six to seven commercial Vega C rockets sold. The exact number is difficult to specify, he said, because Arianespace, which sells Vega and Vega C missions, has in some cases booked half a rocket or less for small payloads that may not all fly together. More commercial missions are in the pipeline, Ranzo said.

Evry, France-based Arianespace also didn’t have to vie for a maiden flight customer with Vega C the way it did for Ariane 6. While OneWeb announced in March it would launch 30 small broadband satellites on the first-ever Ariane 6 mission, Ranzo said the Italian Space Agency decided years ago to launch a science satellite called Lares-2 on the first Vega C flight.

The Italian Space Agency launched the first Lares, a low-cost, spherical satellite equipped with reflectors for ground-based lasers, on the maiden flight of Vega in 2012. Ranzo said Lares-2 will be similarly simple, but will launch to a higher orbit than the first Lares satellite.

The Italian Space Agency did not respond to a May 9 request for comment about the Lares-2 satellite. ESA directed questions about the satellite to the Italian Space Agency.

Arianespace and Avio will launch Vega C for the first time in March 2020, sending Lares-2 into a “peculiar” 6,000-kilometer orbit at an inclination of 75 degrees, Ranzo said.

“It’s very high, but in a way it allows us to test [Vega C] to the top of its performance envelope,” he said.

Ranzo said Avio might have rideshare opportunities for a few smaller satellites alongside Lares-2.

After Lares-2, Vega C will have its first commercial launch with two Pleiades Neo Earth-observation satellites for Airbus, Ranzo said.

Ranzo said Avio anticipates launching four to five times annually for the next few years, with the goal of reaching five annual flights by 2023 at the end of the transition period from Vega to Vega C.

Avio launched once this year in March, and has three more missions in 2019 — the UAE’s Falcon Eye satellite in July, a fully booked dedicated rideshare mission in September, and a second Falcon Eye satellite in November, Ranzo said.

He said Avio’s customer mix is split roughly even between commercial customers and European governments.

Avio test-fired Vega C’s second-stage Zefiro-40 engine May 8. Ranzo said Avio has one more test-firing of Vega C’s first-stage engine, the P120C, later this year. That test will evaluate the booster configured as a strap-on for the Ariane 6, he said.

The Ariane 6 uses two to four strap-on P120C boosters to provide additional power at liftoff. ArianeGroup and Avio are using the increased production scale provided through booster commonality as a way to lower costs for the Ariane 6 and Vega C.