KOUROU, French Guiana — Europe’s Italian-led Vega small-satellite launcher was successfully launched on its inaugural flight Feb. 13, placing a 400-kilogram laser-reflector satellite into low Earth orbit and then dropping eight microsatellites into a different position.
Nine years in development and costing some 710 million euros ($930 million), the Vega rocket will complement the heavy-lift Ariane 5 and the medium-class Russian Soyuz vehicle at Europe’s Guiana Space Center here.
Vega is designed to place a 1,500-kilogram satellite in a 700-kilometer low Earth orbit. It is a market that several years ago appeared to be the near-exclusive preserve of former Russian and Soviet ballistic missiles that were converted into space-launch vehicles.
That was then. Following years of determined Italian support — Italy is paying about 60 percent of Vega’s costs — Vega now appears ready to harvest a captive market of European Space Agency () and other European government Earth observation and science satellites.
The 19-nation ESA plans to spend another 400 million euros on five Vega demonstration flights starting in 2013. Four of these already have been assigned ESA science and Earth observation spacecraft, with one slated to launch an experimental re-entry vehicle.
The fifth demonstration launch has not yet been assigned a customer. Starting in 2014 or 2015, Vega commercial flights will begin. Theconsortium of Evry, France, is commercializing Vega alongside Ariane 5 and Soyuz and has already booked two commercial contracts with ESA, also for Earth observation satellites.
Arianespace Chairman Jean-Yves Le Gall said in a Feb. 12 briefing here that Arianespace estimates that five satellites per year in Vega’s weight class are scheduled for launch over the next decade.
Le Gall said the Russian ballistic missiles will be retired from service as space launch vehicles in the next few years, leaving Vega all but alone in a market that is growing, not shrinking.
Other industry officials say the Russian Rockot small-satellite launcher, which ESA also uses, will continue to operate at least to 2018. The future of the Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr vehicle is not certain, but this rocket has also launched ESA and European government payloads.
The most immediate effect of Vega will be to reinforce Italy’s presence at a European spaceport that too often is perceived as a French installation. ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain, a French national, noted that for years, Italy was alone in defending the Vega idea.
A successful launch, Dordain said, will change that. “Vega certainly has more fathers today than 10 years ago, which is a sign of a successful project,” Dordain said.
The French space agency, CNES, had resisted Vega until several years ago. Since then, CNES officials have repeated their belief that Vega is entering a thriving market that justifies its investment.
France is paying about 25 percent of Vega’s overall costs and had principal responsibility for the carbon-epoxy filament-wound P80 first stage. Its technology is believed to have future application on Ariane 5’s strap-on boosters.
Italian and ESA officials did not hide their anxiety leading up to the launch. Dordain noted since the late 1970s, Europe has launched just three vehicles: Ariane 4 in 1979, Ariane 5 in 1996 and now Vega. Coincidentally, each debut was separated by 16 years.
In a Feb. 12 briefing, Dordain made a veiled reference to the inaugural Ariane 5 flight, which ended in a low-altitude explosion. “Inaugural flights are not to be taken for granted,” Dordain said, adding that some Vega officials wanted to conduct still more tests before proceeding to flight.
Enrico Saggese, president of the Italian Space Agency, said the executive chairman of the German Aerospace Center, DLR, had called him Feb. 12 to say Germany was now interested in investing in Vega.
ESA Launcher Director Antonio Fabrizi, whose work in Italian industry on Vega began some 20 years ago, had said getting Germany to replace the Ukraine as the provider of Vega’s upper stage was an ESA goal.
Fabrizi is one of the senior ESA officials who have personal memories of the disdain heaped on Vega by other European governments, and the uphill fight Italy had to wage to push Vega onto ESA’s agenda.
“This is very good news that Germany wants to come on board,” Fabrizi said in an interview. “We have been hoping for this for some time.”
The performance of the Ukrainian Avum stage, with Russian-built fuel tanks, in the maiden flight was just about perfect, according to a preliminary analysis of Vega flight managers.
The three solid-fueled stages performed to specification for approximately six minutes. The liquid bi-propellant Avum then conducted a series of four ignitions and shut-offs.
Italy’s 400-kilogram Lares laser reflector sphere was placed into its targeted 1,450-kilometer circular orbit after Avum’s second ignition and cutoff. The stage then was ignited a third time to lower the orbit’s perigee to about 350 kilometers for the release of seven 1-kilogram cubesats.
The cubesats were carried in three pods scheduled to open within 20 seconds of each other. The exact performance of this release mechanism could not be immediately confirmed, but the orbit was correct, according to flight managers.
The final satellite to be released was the 12.5-kilogram AlmaSat-1 built by Italy’s University of Bologne.