WASHINGTON — The European Space Agency is seeking small satellites to share a Vega launch in late 2018.

The launch, part of the Small Spacecraft Mission Service (SSMS) program that ESA initiated in 2014, is intended to demonstrate Vega’s utility as a dedicated launcher for satellites weighing 1 to 400 kilograms. The mission will feature a new dispenser ESA is developing under the SSMS program to release multiple satellites from the same rocket.

Vega is the smallest rocket in European launch provider Arianespace’s family of vehicles. It can carry up to 1,500 kilograms to a 700 kilometer low-Earth orbit. Minus a few exceptions over the course of its eight flights, the rocket has mainly launched government missions with payloads weighing several hundred kilograms.

ESA and the European Commission, in an announcement posted Feb. 13, said they are seeking “to identify and pre-select Candidate Spacecrafts for a first Vega flight based on SSMS hardware and processes.”

ESA is targeting a sun-synchronous orbit between 500 and 800 kilometers for the 2018 mission, though the agency said it is open to sending the rocket to other orbits within Vega’s 400 to 1,400-kilometer-altitude range. Using Vega’s re-ignitable fourth-stage Attitude and Vernier Upper Module, known as AVUM, ESA said the mission can drop off satellites at two different orbits.

In its announcement of opportunity, ESA and the European Commission cautioned that the SSMS dispenser is still under development and might change. Current dispenser formats include multiple configurations, including carrying one bigger smallsat in the upper position with multiple smaller smallsats below, or carrying a greater number of smaller spacecraft.

ESA and the European Commission classify the small satellite types as either mini-satellites (200 to 400 kilograms), microsatellites (60 to 200 kilograms), nanosatellites (25 to 60 kilograms), and cubesats (1 to 25 kilograms). The configurations allow different combinations of launchable satellites based on mass and size. 

Vega payload adaptor configurations
Digital rendering of possible smallsat configurations with Vega. Credit: ESA/European Commission

The 2018 Vega mission is the first launch opportunity created through the Light satellite, Low-cost Launch opportunity, referred to as LLL or L3, that ESA member states approved during December’s ministerial conference in Lucerne, Switzerland. The purpose of L3 is to maximize the usefulness of the future Ariane 6 and Vega C launchers when they come online in 2020 and 2019, respectively.

Vega C will have a slightly larger payload capability than the initial Vega. Italy’s ELV SpA is building the rocket to lift at least 300 kilograms more payload without increasing costs. The strap-on boosters for Ariane 6 will use the same P120C engines as Vega C’s first stage, enabling larger production quantities and resulting in lower prices through economies of scale.

Vega’s next launch is currently scheduled for March 7, carrying the Sentinel-2B Earth observation satellite for the European Commission’s Copernicus program.

Caleb Henry is a former SpaceNews staff writer covering satellites, telecom and launch. He previously worked for Via Satellite and NewSpace Global.He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science along with a minor in astronomy from...