The second test firing of the Zefiro engine for the European Space Agency's (ESA) proposed Vega small satellite launcher has been completed in Sardinia, Italy.
The Vega will be able to place 1,000kg (2,200lb) payloads into low earth orbit (LEO) at between $10 million and $25 million a launch, with a business plan that foresees four to six launches a year.
VegaSpazio - a Fiat Avio and Aerospatiale Matra joint venture to develop the Vega - is proceeding, but a final confirmation of the project will not be made by ESA members until October.
Aerospatiale Matra does not intend to increase its 50% stake in the VegaSpazio, even if the vehicle gets the go-ahead. France is resisting further investment in the Vega. Italy, however, is eagerly promoting the booster.
The Vega's projected LEO communications satellite market relies on launches of replacement satellites for constellations, but the viability of constellation systems has attracted doubts, while the weight of LEO satellites could be too high for the launcher. As a result, there are concerns that the Vega could be left with just a few government research and science missions.
• The NASA-European Space Agency Cassini-Huygens Saturn explorer flew past Venus on 24 June, at a distance of just 620km, in a gravity-assisted, speed-boosting manoeuvre.