Vega maiden launch could slip into February

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European Space Agency launch operator Arianespace plans a busy 2012, with seven Ariane 5 heavy-lift missions and three medium-lift Soyuz flights from ESA's spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, along with two Soyuz launches at Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome.

The highlight of the year, though, will arguably be the maiden flight of ESA's new light launcher, Vega, but the 26 January launch date set late last year now looks to be uncertain. Arianespace chief executive Jean-Yves Le Gall, speaking in Paris on 5 January to detail 2012 launch plans, merely said Arianespace and ESA were making ready for the flight, which is now listed on Arianespace's launch planner as "late January-early February".

ESA director general Jean Jacques Dordain is likely to announce a flight date as early as Monday 9 January, when he will detail the agency's agenda for the coming year. Dordain will be pressed hard on this point, as Vega cannot move too far beyond 26 January in order to complete the Kourou launch before preparations begin for the next Ariane 5 flight on 9 March, which will carry ESA's third Automated Transfer Vehicle robotic supply ship to the International Space Station.

The first Vega mission will orbit the Lares and AlmaSat-1 satellites, along with several microsatellites.

Ariane 5 marked its 46th consecutive successful launch during 2011, and the 9 March ISS mission will be the first of seven scheduled for 2012. Following the first Kourou launch of Soyuz, in October 2011, which orbited the first two Galileo navigation satellites, Arianespace plans to make three 2012 flights from Kourou and two from Baikonur. The next Soyuz flight from Kourou is set for this summer, to orbit a second pair of Galileo satellites.

During 2012, Arianespace launched five Ariane 5s and four Soyuz rockets, including two from Kourou, to loft 29 payloads - including half of the 16 geostationary orbit satellites launched worldwide.

The company will post total revenues of about €985 million ($1.26 billion) for 2011, and expects to reach break even.