ermany’s decision to invest in upper-stage design work for Europe’s Vega small launcher is not a major commitment by any measure, but the messages it sends are significant.

For European scientists and other users of small satellites, the message is that their long-term needs are on the radar screen of Europe’s largest economy and the second-biggest contributor to the European Space Agency (ESA). In recent years this user community has been able to take advantage of low-cost, converted ICBMs from Russia and Ukraine, but the price of these vehicles is rising and their supply is finite.

To Russia and Ukraine, meanwhile, the Vega investment signals Germany’s willingness to look at other options in response to the price hikes as well as Russia’s increasingly tight technology-transfer restrictions.

Germany initially shunned the Vega project, having already thrown its support behind the creation of Eurockot Launch Services, a joint venture between the German division of Astrium Space Transportation and Russia’s Khrunichev organization that markets a converted Russian ICBM dubbed Rockot. Germany today routinely uses Rockot launchers to loft government-sponsored science and Earth observation satellites, but this likely would change should Germany ultimately become a major partner on Vega.

For other ESA members, especially Italy and France, the move raises the possibility of an all-European Vega launcher with a larger customer base. Initial versions of the vehicle will use an upper stage developed and supplied by Ukraine’s Yuzhnoye organization. If Germany were to follow through on its design work and replace the Ukrainian-built hardware, it would be yet another example of Europe insisting on maintaining independent space capabilities that are deemed to be of strategic importance. At 500,000 euros ($689,000), Germany’s initial investment in Vega is just a baby step, but it is an unmistakable move in a

direction Europe should applaud.