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Vega agreement paves way for P80 booster for Ariane 5

Julian Moxon/PARIS Giorgio di Barnado Nicolai/ROME

France and Italy have resolved their year-long differences over the Vega small launcher, unblocking development of a new solid fuel booster for the Ariane 5 and releasing European Space Agency (ESA) co-financing for the Kourou space centre.

The 19 October agreement between the Italian and French space agencies ends a rift over development of Vega, proposed by Italy at the ESA ministerial meeting in May last year. France refused to support the proposal, complaining the programme was excessively costly and insisting there was insufficient market for a small launcher.

The Italian space agency (ASI) responded by freezing funding for three major ESA programmes: Ariane 5 Plus, the associated ARTA technology programme and the FLTP reuseable launcher. It also refused to continue ESA co-funding of the Ariane launch pads at Kourou with Arianespace.

France and Italy will now co-operate on the development of the P80 solid fuel booster, taking 35% and 52% shares respectively, while Italy will pay €413 million ($360 million) towards the Ariane 5 Plus, ARTA and FLTP programmes. The all-composite P80 will reduce Ariane 5 launch costs and improve performance compared to the current metal liquid boosters. Due for its first tests in 2003, it will cost €128 million to develop.

Italy and other partners will be able to draw on the programme to develop a first stage for the Vega small launcher. This will be capable of placing satellites of 1-2t into low-earth orbit. ASI president, Sergio de Julio, disputes the French argument that there is no market: "Italy alone will launch12 small satellites between 2003 and 2006. We estimate that in Europe there are 35 small satellites to be orbited for governments in the next few years - 60 including commercial satellites."

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