WASHINGTON — Italian rocket builder Avio will keep a team of launch personnel in French Guiana from May through August in the hopes of completing three Vega launches this year, notwithstanding coronavirus-related slowdowns.
Preparations for the maiden flight of the next-generation Vega C rocket are also expected to start before year’s end, though the rocket may not fly until 2021, Avio chief executive Giulio Ranzo said during a May 14 earnings call.
Vega is scheduled for a return-to-flight mission in mid-June that will be the rocket’s first launch in 11 months. The rocket will carry 52 small satellites to low Earth orbit in a dedicated rideshare mission organized by Arianespace, the Evry, France-based company that markets Vega launches. Customers include Swarm, Planet, Spire, GHGSat, Tyvak and Innovative Solutions in Space.
Avio plans to conduct a second Vega launch in August, followed by a third Vega “by year end,” according to a company presentation. The more powerful Vega C is scheduled to have a ground qualification review in the fall, but was not given a launch date.
Launching during a pandemic
Ranzo said Avio completed a test-firing of the Zefiro-23, the Vega stage linked to the rocket’s 2019 failure, in February and is now “extremely confident” in Vega’s return to flight success.
On May 11, Avio sent a team of more than 60 people to the Guiana Space Center, the South American spaceport where Vega launches take place. There the team is subject to a 14-day quarantine implemented by the French space agency CNES, which controls the spaceport, before they can begin launch activities.
Rather than return that team to Europe and face a second quarantine for Vega’s August launch, Ranzo said Avio will keep the same staff at the spaceport for both missions.
“We will keep our team in Kourou for one launch campaign after the other to try and catch up with the delay as much as we possibly can,” he said.
After those two launches, a decision will be made whether to launch Vega C next, or conduct another Vega launch. “It is just a question of scheduling and what is most urgent to do,” Ranzo said.
Ranzo added that some Vega C subsystems suppliers experienced delays delivering products because of the coronavirus pandemic. He did not quantify the impact of those delays. The next step in Vega C’s development is a ground qualification review with the European Space Agency to ensure all the rocket’s components are ready for flight, he said. Vega C does not use the Zefiro-23 stage that caused Vega to have its first-ever failure in July 2019.
Ranzo said getting Vega back to launching is the most important thing Avio can do to generate profits. Avio reported 3.8 million euros ($4.2 million) in adjusted earnings before interest and taxes for the quarter ended March 31, up 18%, and revenues of 80 million euros, down 3%.
Despite recent delays, Ranzo said the pandemic has had a limited impact on Avio revenues, since many of its customers have long-term contracts (launches and contract signings often have about a two-year gap). Some 35% of Avio’s revenue comes from the European Space Agency, which helps insulate the company from volatile market conditions, he said.
Ranzo said the quarter included a slight increase in one-off costs because of the coronavirus. Those costs included 500,000 euros in coronavirus-related donations Avio made in Colleferro, Italy and to a hospital in Kourou, French Guiana. Avio also purchased thousands of face masks and gloves for its employees to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus, he said.