The European Space Agency’s newest rocket, Vega, is set for a busy launch schedule, with 10 flights planned over three years from late 2015. These flights, together with Vega’s first five launches – including the February 2012 maiden flight and a May 2013 launch that put Vega’s first commercial payload into orbit – form the European Space Agency’s so-called Vega Research and Technology Accompaniment campaign (VERTA), which seeks to establish Vega as an unsubsidised, cost-competitive vehicle to put scientific, Earth observation and even telecommunications satellites into orbit for European and non-European institutions and commercial customers.
The ten-vehicle contract signed this week by ESA’s launch operator, Arianespace, and Vega’s prime contractor, European Launch Vehicle (ELV), was accompanied by an agreement between those parties and ESA to manage the transition between the VERTA campaign and full commercial exploitation of the rocket.
On the eve of the second flight – which put ESA’s Proba-V scientific Earth observation satellite, Vietnam’s first satellite and an Estonian cubesat technology demonstrator into orbit – ESA’s launchers director Antonio Fabrizi said he expected the price of a Vega mission would settle down at €35-45 million ($46-59 million), which ESA and Arianespace believe will make the launcher highly competitive. The rocket's sweet spot is to place a 1.5t payload into a 750km (466m) orbit, ideal for Earth observation or scientific missions; significantly, Vega’s multi-payload adaptor and restartable upper stage allow for a mix of large and small payloads.
The experience of one launch, said Fabrizi, had cut the launch campaign time by more than 20%. He added that the market for launches was strong enough to support three flights per year – a confidence clearly underscored by the latest build contract signing.
Vega gives ESA a full range of launch options. The medium-lift Soyuz, which can fly from either Kourou or its longstanding home base at Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazahkstan, is being used to put Europe's Galileo navigation satellites into orbit. The hugely reliable heavy-lift Ariane 5 is arguably the launcher of choice for hefting telecommunications satellites to the highest, geosynchronous orbits.
An Ariane 5 upgrade – Midlife Extension, or ME – is being readied to fly from 2017 or 2018, and will boost payload by 20% to 12t compared with the current launcher, while holding launch costs stable.
The ME variant will also bridge the gap to Ariane 6, which will fly from 2021. This will look to reduce costs and increase flexibility by replacing Ariane 5's cryogenic main stages with a modular, solid-fuel first and second stage configuration – the modules will be, in essence, Vega main stages – topped by a re-ignitable cryogenic fuel upper stage. That upper stage will be an adapted version of the Snecma Vinci restartable engine which is being developed for Ariane 5 ME, and will also feature specific propellant tanks.