The European Space Agency will finish its so-called "year of launchers" a few weeks short of realising the maiden flight of its third vehicle, but the Vega light rocket remains on course for a January 2012 launch from ESA's Kourou, French Guiana spaceport.
Vega, designed to launch satellites of up to 1.5 tonnes into 700km (380nm) polar orbits, will complement the medium-lift Soyuz - which made its first Kourou flight in October, with Europe's first two Galileo navigation satellites as payloads - and ESA's venerable heavy lifter, Ariane 5.
Ariane 5 is capable of lifting the ATV at more than 20 tonnes fully laden to the International Space Station, or up to 10 tonnes to much higher geostationary transfer orbits.
© European Space Agency
Jean-Yves Le Gall, chief executive of ESA launch operator Arianespace, said a payload enhancement programme is on track to increase the mass of a dual payload to 9.25 tonnes in 2012. The enhanced configuration is intended to provide greater flexibility, to simultaneously launch the largest satellites and smaller spacecraft.
A further improvement, the Ariane 5 Midlife Evolution, has just passed its preliminary design review and awaits funding approval by the ESA member governments, who next meet in November 2012.
The cornerstone of the ME push to increase GTO capability by a fifth, to 12 tonnes, is a new Vinci reignitable cryogenic upper stage, which has been under development since the mid-2000s. The rocket will also get a revised fairing to house larger satellites, and could fly as early as 2017.
Le Gall stresses that the three launchers together will allow Arianespace to orbit all types of payload, creating "synergies with the industrial teams that work with the three launch systems, thereby offering cost reductions for the benefit of our clients".