Spaceflight books launch slots on two Arianespace Vega missions

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WASHINGTON —  Spaceflight Industries has secured rideshare opportunities on two Vega rocket missions for tiny satellites.

European launch provider Arianespace on April 17 said Spaceflight will launch “a microsatellite and a significant number of cubesats” on a proof of concept flight of Europe’s Small Spacecraft Mission System (SSMS), an adapter designed for cubesats and other satellites that are smaller than what typically launch on Vega. Seattle-based Spaceflight’s contract includes “a subsequent Vega SSMS flight about one year later,” Arianespace said.

“Striking this deal with Vega will serve a growing part of our market demand — namely organizations that need a diversified launch plan for small satellite constellations,” Curt Blake, president of Spaceflight, said in a statement. “We are thrilled to add Arianespace to our network of launch partners.”

Vega’s endorsement by Spaceflight is a meaningful win for Arianespace (which markets Vega) Avio (which builds Vega) and the European Space Agency, which has been funding and assisting in product development to make Vega more competitive in launching small satellites. The two SSMS missions constitute Arianespace’s first contract with Spaceflight, a rideshare organizer that has manifested and launched more than 120 small satellites on U.S., Indian and Russian rockets.

Blake told SpaceNews by email that Spaceflight signed the Vega mission because “pricing is getting more competitive, the Vega has an impressive track record, and we endeavor to have a diversified portfolio of launch partners to better serve our customers.”

ESA started the SSMS, a modular carbon fiber dispenser, in 2016 with support from the European Commission. Colleferro, Italy-based Avio is the design lead for the SMSS. Vega’s backers hope to make the rocket more competitive with India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, which last year launched 104 small satellites in one mission, the vast majority being for Earth-observation operator Planet.

Vega’s first SSMS mission was initially planned for late this year, but since slipped to 2019. In a March interview, Avio CEO Giulio Ranzo told SpaceNews the delay was mainly “due to customer commitments which are varying every week.”

“It’s something similar to what Spaceflight has experienced in the past,” he said. “The smallsat customers change their minds continuously. Not all of them have solid and robust funding, so they find it hard to commit to precise launch dates and to commit to downpayments. It makes it very difficult to aggregate all the payloads to launch on one date … eventually we need to say the train is leaving the station, and whoever has paid the ticket will be on board.”

For Vega’s 11 missions performed to date, most have been for government-backed science or remote-sensing missions. In 2016, Vega performed its most notable commercial launch, carrying four SkySat satellites for Terra Bella (then part of Google, now part of Planet) and PeruSat-1 for the Peruvian government.