PARIS — Europe’s Arianespace launch consortium on Dec. 14 said it will launch two European Sentinel Earth observation satellites between 2014 and 2016 in the first two commercial contracts signed for the new Vega small-satellite launcher, which is still in development.

Vega is expected to make its first launch in the first quarter of 2012, joining the European version of Russia’s Soyuz rocket alongside Europe’s heavy-lift Ariane 5 vehicle in operations from Europe’s Guiana Space Center in French Guiana.

Under the contracts, Arianespace will use Vega to launch a Sentinel 2 multispectral land-imaging satellite and the Sentinel 3 radar observation spacecraft in separate launches. Each satellite is expected to weigh around 1,200 kilograms at launch and to operate in an 800-kilometer near-polar low Earth orbit.

Astrium Satellites is prime contractor for Sentinel 2. Thales Alenia Space is building Sentinel 3. Both companies have contracts to manufacture three copies of each satellite as part of Europe’s Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) project, managed by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Commission.

The first Sentinels are scheduled for launch in 2013 pending a resolution of a dispute between ESA and the commission over funding for GMES operations beyond 2013.

ESA’s ruling council on Oct. 27 informed the commission in writing that it would instruct ESA not to launch the first Sentinel satellites if the commission has not committed, by the end of 2012, to funding GMES operations over the long term.

The two Vega contracts could be used for any of the Sentinel 2 or Sentinel 3 satellites ready for launch between 2014 and 2016, but under the current Sentinel planning the launches would be of the Sentinel 2b and Sentinel 3b spacecraft.


Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.