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Italians form launcher company

Andy Nativi/GENOA

FiatAvio and ASI, the Italian Space Agency, have formed a new company, ELV, to undertake the bulk of the development work on the Vega light space launcher.

ELV is split 70:30 in favour of FiatAvio. ASI chief Sergio De Julio will be president, while the chief executive will be Silvano Casini of FiatAvio. ELV has a five year, c230 million ($210 million) contract to develop the launcher on behalf of the European Space Agency.

Total development costs, including a separate c123 million contract awarded to a FiatAvio-led team to develop the P80 solid propellant first stage of the launcher, are estimated at around L450 billion ($210 million).

In the current configuration Vega is scheduled to lift a payload of up to 1,500 kg (3,300lb) to a 700 km (430 miles) polar orbit using a four-stage configuration: a P80 first stage, FiatAvio Zefiro Z3 second stage, Zefiro Z-9 third stage and a final small liquid stage with an Ukrainian-supplied motor. The launcher will weigh 130t at lift-off and will be 30m (98ft) tall.

Italy is to provide 65% of the finance, while Spain is committed to a 5% stake (rising to 8%). Belgium has a 6% share, the Netherlands 3% and Switzerland and Sweden 1% each. De Julio says France may be persuaded by the end of the year to provide at least part of the remaining 15%, although it has previously declined. If Paris fails to come on board, Italy will subscribe the rest of the development cash for a project aimed at a maiden launch in 2005.

Regardless of whether France rejoins the programme, it is already committed to taking part in the P80 work, providing about c45 million. The P80 could result in several spin-offs, including its use as an Arianespace Ariane 5 booster.

Saverio Strati, FiatAvio's chief executive, says there is a market for a Vega-class launcher: "At the moment there at least 35 satellites to be launched in the next 10 years that could use Vega. We estimate that there is a $1 billion per year market and Vega could secure a 10-15% share of this market. Launch rates could rise to five a year but the programme is viable at a two launch per year rate."

According to ELV, the Vega will initially be offered at a cost of c18.5 million per launch, making it one of the cheapest vehicles on the market. Arianespace is to market Vega.

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