Vega Launch Pushed to January, Soyuz Set for Oct. 20 Launch

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PARIS — The maiden flight of Europe’s Vega small-satellite launch vehicle will not occur before January but the European version of Russia’s Soyuz rocket will fly twice in 2011, using both of its European-version configurations, European government and industry officials said Sept. 21.

The Italian-led Vega rocket had been scheduled to fly in November or December. Maria Flamina Rossi, head of future-launcher planning at the 19-nation European Space Agency (ESA), said Vega is now on track for a January launch.

Rossi made her remarks during the Space Access conference organized by Astech Paris Region, a group of companies that supply Europe’s space sector.

Sergio Scippa, head of commercial development at Avio, which is Vega’s prime industrial contractor, agreed that the launch will be ready for January.

Europe’s Soyuz rocket, meanwhile, is scheduled to make its first flight Oct. 20 from the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana carrying two Galileo navigation satellites for European governments.

The rocket will be the Soyuz 2-1b version equipped with a Fregat upper stage; the vehicle’s third-stage engine differs from the engine that caused a Soyuz-U rocket to fail on Aug. 24. The vehicle that failed was carrying an unmanned Russian Progress supply vehicle intended for the international space station.

But while the Soyuz 2-1b has been cleared for flight, it still must undergo a final qualification review that began the week of Sept. 19 and is scheduled for completion the week of Sept. 26.

Maria Carmen Morado Testa of ESA told the conference that the Qualification Commission will be making final verifications of safety systems that could not be fully qualified by ground tests. Testa said ESA has no reason to believe that anything will turn up during the review that would delay the inaugural Soyuz flight beyond Oct. 20.

Denis Schmitt, a program manager at the Arianespace launch consortium of Evry, France, told the conference that the other European Soyuz configuration, the Soyuz 2-1a, which carries a third-stage engine similar to the one that failed in August, is still scheduled for a mid-December liftoff from the European spaceport.

Two of the four Soyuz rockets that have been delivered to the Guiana Space Center spaceport are the 2-1a variant. The third stages for these rockets are being returned to Russia for testing and, if needed, modification.

Schmitt said the most likely scenario is that a Soyuz 2-1a third stage that has already been rechecked in Russia will be sent to French Guiana. That would permit the launch teams preparing Soyuz’s second launch from the European launch base to be ready for a mid-December flight.

The second Soyuz launch is scheduled to carry six satellites. The main payload is the French Pleiades high-resolution optical Earth observation satellite for French commercial, civil-government and military use. Four French Elisa electronic-intelligence satellites will share the ride into low Earth orbit, as will Chile’s SSOT medium-resolution Earth observation satellite, which was built by Astrium of France.