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Vega nears maiden flight

Europe's Vega small satellite launcher has passed a milestone en route to a maiden flight in 2006, with commercial operator Arianespace and prime contractor ELV signing a contract for vehicle integration at Kourou, French Guiana.

ELV, owned 70% by Avio and 30% by Italian space agency ASI, is developing the Vega under a contract awarded in February 2003 by French space agency CNES on behalf of the European Space Agency (ESA). Vega, with three solid-propellant stages and a liquid-propellant upper stage, is designed to launch 1,500kg (3,300lb) into a 700km (435 miles) polar orbit.

Avio is prime-contractor for the P80 solid-propellant stage, the first test of which has been conducted. The 3m (10ft)-diameter P80 has a carbonfibre casing, 88t of propellant and produces 727,000lb (3,240kN) of thrust, and also acts as a technology demonstrator for a future Ariane 5 solid rocket booster.

Italy is funding 65% of the Vega programme, with Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland also participating. From 2007, Arianespace will be responsible for payload preparation, integration and commercial launches.

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