SPACEFLIGHT: Partners look to enhance Vega

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For evidence that winners have friends, look no further than Vega. As soon as Europe's new small launcher made its spectacularly successful maiden flight, Italian space agency head Enrico Saggese received a call from German counterpart Johann-Dietrich Woerner who, along with his congratulations, expressed enthusiasm that his agency, DL, might join forces with Saggese's ASI to develop the launcher further.

Specifically, DLR is thought to be keen to help devise a European alternative to the final, fourth stage of Vega, which is the tried-and-tested RD-869 restartable engine built in Ukraine and also used as the third stage on the Dnepr launch vehicle and its predecessor, the SS-18 (SATAN) intercontinental ballistic missile.

Vega programme boss Stefano Bianchi says the choice of the Ukrainian fourth-stage engine was made partly to save costs, and he admits it is a candidate for replacement. However, much of the motivation behind developing Vega was to enhance Europe's independent capability to access space, so there is thought to be some discomfort at relying on an import for such a key component. The restartable stage is needed to put multiple payloads into different orbits.

German interest in getting involved in a successful programme is understandable. The Italians have championed Vega for the best part of a decade, at times with little interest from France, which set Europe's space programme in motion with its original Ariane rockets and still regards itself as the lead player in European launcher development. Germany, meanwhile, has also been left behind by Italy.

But as Bianchi observes, cost is a critical consideration and so there should be no change to Vega hardware for 10 years or more than 20 launches: "You need to consolidate or you can't be competitive. You can't keep changing."