KOUROU, French Guiana — Europe’s Vega small-satellite launcher, whose inaugural flight is scheduled for mid-February, will be sold commercially for about 32 million euros ($42 million) per launch — a price that can compete with converted Russian ballistic missiles, Vega officials said Jan. 23.

In briefings at Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport here on the northeast coast of South America, where Vega is nearing the end of nine years of development, program managers said the rocket’s competitive position is even better than it was at the start of development.

“Our belief is that we can charge up to 20 percent more per launch than our biggest competitors and still win business because of the value we provide at the space center here and with Arianespace,” said Francesco De Pasquale, managing director of ELV SpA, the Italian company that is Vega’s prime contractor.

“What we are saying is that we can now deliver the vehicle for 25 million euros to Arianespace,” De Pasquale said in an interview on the eve of Vega’s final tests before flight approval.

“Arianespace’s marketing and service costs will add about 7 million to that figure, which gets us to 32 million euros. This is assuming that we launch only two Vega flights per year. If we can increase the flight rate to four per year — and we believe the market demand will be there — then our price per vehicle can drop to 22 million euros. We assume a corresponding price drop from Arianespace,” De Pasquale said.

Avio’s space division in Colleferro, Italy, owns 70 percent of ELV. The Italian Space Agency owns the remaining 30 percent.

Vega was first proposed to the European Space Agency (ESA) in the late 1990s but development did not begin until early 2003. The vehicle is designed to carry a 1,500-kilogram satellite into a 700-kilometer orbit, a performance that gives it a ready-made market in Europe for launching Earth observation satellites.

Vega faced initial opposition within ESA and was approved only after the Vega industrial team offered specific commercial price targets.

In Vega’s early development years, the entry into the market of Russian and Ukrainian converted ballistic missiles caused Vega backers to worry that the original commercial price point of 21 million euros per launch would not be low enough.

These concerns were heightened when the Russian Rockot vehicle entered the market as part of a Russian-German collaboration. The Germany connection, as a major shareholder in the Eurockot Launch Services GmbH company of Bremen, Germany, gave Rockot access to the ESA market.

The Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr vehicle, while not having a European market entry ticket, nonetheless attracted European and other government customers with prices that, as recently as several years ago, were considered unmatchable by Vega.

A wave of inflation in Russia has driven up the prices of both rockets “radically” in recent years, according to Antonio Fabrizi, head of the launcher division for the 19-nation ESA. Fabrizi said a recent ESA decision to assign Vega the launch of two European Sentinel Earth observation satellites was made only after a competition with Rockot. “We believe in competition in the sector,” Fabrizi said.

Other vehicles that at one point might have competed directly with Vega have been sidelined by their owners, or hampered by development issues or launch delays.

A Ukrainian-Brazilian project to launch Ukraine’s Cyclone rocket from Brazil’s Alcantara launch base has seen multiple delays, with a first launch now planned for sometime in 2013. It is not clear how quickly the vehicle will be available commercially.

Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., has set aside development of its Falcon 1 rocket while it concentrates on qualifying the larger Falcon 9.

India’s PLSV vehicle has a full manifest with Indian government launches and also has lingering issues with the U.S. technology export regulations, known as ITAR — International Traffic in Arms Regulations — that have made it difficult for owners of satellites with U.S. parts to use the rocket. Even stricter U.S. satellite export prohibitions have limited the Chinese Long March rocket’s market access.

Assuming Vega’s inaugural flight occurs on schedule and is successful, the rocket has five more ESA-funded launches scheduled. It is during this period that ELV and the other Vega contractors are supposed to hone their practices so that, by 2015, they are able to meet the 32-million-euro launch price and still make a profit.



Europeanized Upper Stage Sought for Vega as Maiden Flight Nears

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