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French withdrawal prompts ESA to drop Vega project

Julian Moxon/PARIS Andy Nativi/GENOA

France's withdrawal from the Vega small-satellite launcher project has forced the European Space Agency (ESA) to drop Vega as an ESA programme. Italy, the project's main supporter, has promised it will go ahead with Vega "come what may".

France has been reviewing its involvement in the programme and indicated its intention to withdraw in September (Flight International, 15-21 September). France was due to provide 30% of the finance for the programme, with Italy contributing 55%, and the remaining 15% divided between Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

France insists that the launcher, which will cost around € 370 million ($402 million) to develop, is no longer relevant to the market for low-orbit satellite constellations for which it is intended. Vega was a major stumbling block at the ESA Council of Ministers meeting in May. The issue was only resolved with an agreement to set up a commission to report on the viability of the programme. A new, higher- performance version of the Vega was proposed, but France was unconvinced and, according to one source, has continued to block the programme at a "very high level".

Sergio De Julio, director of ASI, the Italian Space Agency, says the French decision is surprising after a year of joint work. Italy is seeking other international partners.

ASI says it will not support the Ariane 5 Evolution programme and future launcher technology programme (FLTP) to free funding for Vega. It was to contribute 5% to the Ariane 5 Evolution programme, worth around € 80 million. If it does not maintain this commitment, the other ESA nations will have to make up the shortfall.

The future of the three-year, € 70 million FLTP project in which Italy has a 7% stake is "very shaky", says one source. The programme is seen as vital if Europe is not to be left behind by rapid developments in the USA. A decision on the FLTP is needed soon to allow programme launch by the end of the year. Germany has not joined the project and the UK is said only to be "interested".

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