Europeanized Upper Stage Sought for Vega as Maiden Flight Nears

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KOUROU, French Guiana — European Space Agency (ESA) governments will be asked to finance only minor modifications to Europe’s new Vega small-satellite launcher when they meet November, with the main goal to position Vega as a fully European vehicle, Vega officials said Jan. 24.

These officials said any Vega plans assume a largely trouble-free inaugural flight, now scheduled for mid-February.

Any substantial delays would push the Vega launch into mid-March at the earliest to give Europe’s Guiana Space Center here the time needed to conduct a launch of ESA’s third Automated Transfer Vehicle cargo carrier, which is carried into orbit aboard a heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket. The ATV-3 flight is scheduled for March 9.

Vega is designed to carry a 1,500-kilogram satellite into a 700-kilometer orbit, with Earth observation and science satellites being the principal market. Vega will add a light-lift capacity for Europe alongside the veteran Ariane 5 and the new medium-lift Russian Soyuz rocket, whose Europeanized version made its first two flights here in late 2011.

Vega was approved by ESA governments in 2003, thanks to the determined support of the Italian Space Agency (ASI). ASI pushed Vega through to acceptance despite the absence of Germany among its financial backers and despite the initial resistance of France, whose government space managers did not believe Vega had a sustainable market.

ESA governments, after adjusting Vega’s budget for inflation in 2007, expected to spend about 600 million euros ($800 million at current exchange rates) on Vega’s development, a figure that includes the inaugural flight.

ESA governments also approved a five-flight Vega qualification program, which secured 400 million euros of financing at 2007 rates, or 450 million euros adjusted for inflation.

In an unusual development, Vega prime contractor AvioSpA of Italy contributed 76 million euros, based on loans from the Italian government, to the Vega program.

France was later brought into the Vega program through work on the vehicle’s P-80 solid-fueled first stage and now has about a 25 percent share of the program.

But Italy, with a 58 percent share, remains the dominant paymaster for Vega, and the entire Vega program is resulting in a substantial increase in Italy’s presence here at a launch base that is otherwise dominated by the host country, France.

Vega’s adoption means Europe, for the first time, will not have France as the lead sponsor of a launch program. It is a transition that has occasionally ruffled national pride in both nations.

RiccardoGrazi, director of space and transport at Vitrociset of Italy, which is responsible for Vega’s ground segment, recalled one episode during a Jan. 22 briefing here.

Not long before Vega was adopted by ESA, he said, Vitrociset approached French spaceport managers to inquire about whether the company could be integrated into the team managing the Ariane 5 ground segment, whose development was led by the French space agency, CNES.

The request came at a time when Italy’s return on its investment in Ariane 5 was falling short of 90 percent, a figure that holds for most ESA programs.

The French manager’s response, according to Grazi: “They said, ‘We have already purchased 50 Fiat cars, and we no longer need to adjust the Italian return.’ But in 2004 we won the contract to integrate the Vega ground network. It was the first time a company, rather than a government agency, had done this work — and an Italian one, to boot.”

The Franco-Italian friction flared again when French government authorities refused to permit the export of a flight guidance, navigation and control package for Vega, saying the technology, which is used in ballistic missiles, is barred from export.

The first Vega flight, and perhaps the second as well, will use the French guidance software following special waivers granted by French export-control authorities. Future Vega missions will use new technology being developed in Belgium. With a 6.5 percent stake in Vega, Belgium is the program’s third-biggest contributor.

Grazi said the Vega team was gratified that France has warmed to Vega. CNES President Yannickd’Escatha has sung the vehicle’s praises and predicted a bright future for it in launching European government satellites. French President Nicolas Sarkozy included a Vega side trip on a visit here that ended Jan. 22.

Vega is envisioned as launching two times a year starting in 2013. The inaugural flight will carry the Italian government’s Lares laser reflector experiment and seven small satellites that will be placed in a lower orbit than Lares following the re-ignition of Vega’s Avum upper stage.

It is the Avum stage, whose motor can be restarted up to five times in flight, that sticks out in Vega insofar as it is built in Ukraine, not in Europe. At the November ESA conference, Vega managers will try to attract a European provider, preferably Germany’s Astrium Space Transportation, to build a replacement upper stage.

“We will propose a Europeanization of the stage,” said Stefano Bianchi, ESA’s Vega program manager.