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A late entry

Tim Furniss/LONDON

A new European Space Agency (ESA) launcher, the Vega, will fly from Kourou, French Guiana, in 2002. The heads of the space agencies of ESA's 14 member states gave the initial go-ahead at a meeting in Brussels late last month (see box), with Italy taking the largest financial stake in the $300 million project.

The first phase of the development programme, which is the only part approved so far, will cost $48 million. It involves launcher system design and will initiate or continue the development of components for the Vega.

Countries participating in the programme - apart from Italy with 55% - will be France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain. France will eventually become a leading player, but so far has agreed a share of only 8.3%. Fiat Avio and Aerospatiale will form a joint company to develop the launcher. The company will be based at ESA's Esrin office in Italy.

Vega's first stage is based on the solid rocket motor from the Ariane 5 solid rocket booster, with a movable nozzle but reduced propellant mass of 85t. The P85, as it has been designated, with be 11m high. The second stage will be propelled by the Zephiro, a 16t solid propellant motor, 4m long and 1.9m in diameter. This is being developed by Fiat Avio under an Italian Space Agency contract. A successful hot firing test of the full-scale motor took place on 18 June.

The Vega's third stage will be a hybrid derivative of the Zephiro and French motors. Called the P7, it will be 4m long and 1.9m wide and will hold 7t of propellant. The 26m-long Vega will incorporate an upper liquid propulsion module, which provides roll control during launch and pitch, yaw and axial thrust during the final launch phase, and performs satellite pointing and release manoeuvres.

The Vega will be able to place 700kg, possibly 1,000kg, into low Earth orbit (LEO), for $20 million per flight. The launcher, however, will be making a late entry into what is perceived as a new commercial market. Although the main raison d'être for the programme is to give Europe its own launcher for small payloads, it is estimated that there will be an international market of 35-80 launches to LEO between 2002 and 2011, which ESA believes is enough for Vega to be commercially success. Arianespace will operate the Vega commercially, flying up to six missions a year. Other forecasts say there could be a market for 20 launches a year as early as 2000.

There is strong competition in the international commercial market, however, outside the captive market of most European LEO launch requirements. The Lockheed Martin Athena and Orbital Sciences Taurus boosters have already flown and are operating in what commercial market there is for LEO flights.

ESA says the Vega's price is 15% less than that of the Taurus and Athena. Some Taurus and Athena flights may be offered for less than Vega's $20 million projected fee, but ESA is understood to have based Vega's competitiveness more on availability than on price.

Russia is also offering several converted ballistic missiles for LEO launches, and the Russian/Daimler-Benz Aerospace company, Eurokot, offers similar services. The Russian Cosmos 3M is also in the market, as are China's Long March 2C, 2D and 4A. Israel is offering the Shavit, while Brazil's VLS, once it has flown successfully, may enter the market.

Analysts of the commercial LEO launch market often cite the need to send up replacement satellites to maintain constellations for large fleets of communications satellites, primarily for mobile and broadband services in LEO. Operators may find it far more economical to pay for launches of several satellites on larger boosters than pay $20 million for the flight of one or two payloads. This part of the projected market has still to be proven.

ESA DECISION

Meeting in Brussels in late June, the national space agency heads of the 14 ESA member states made some key decisions, which have to be ratified by a full Council of Ministers meeting next year. They set aside:

$244 million to proceed with initial development of the Vega and a new cryogenic, high-energy, restartable upper-stage engine for the Ariane 5. The total Ariane improvement programme will cost about $1 billion, but only $130 million spending has been agreed so far, with France and Germany paying most; $27 million over two years to kick-start the Living Planet Earth-observation programme, in which the UK has agreed to fund a major proportion of the initial costs. The programme will develop new technologies for future remote-sensing satellites. The full programme may cost about $400 million a year to operate once the satellites are built and launched; $41 million for a preliminary programme which may lead to the development of a $4 billion new generation global navigation satellite system, GNSS-2. The UK has agreed to make a large contribution to the funding.

They also agreed to streamline ESA and its decision-making process and to improve its synergy with the European Union, particularly in navigation, communications and Earth observation.

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