As it approaches the end of nine years of ESA development and 15 more since its conception, ESA’s new small launcher Vega is now waiting for its maiden flight, named “VV01”, at Europe’s Spaceport in French Guyana.
Subject to several delays from 2008, VV01 (Vol Vega 001) is finally expected to take place on 13th February, at the extreme limit of the so-called “launch window”, the time period in which it is possible to launch from a certain position. A launch opportunity to be seized, since further delay will likely mean having to wait until early April[i]. Indeed, Vega shares some facilities with Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), which launch to reach the International Space Station -on 9th March- cannot be delayed.
Vega officially became an optional ESA programme in June 1998, when the Agency europeanised the small launcher programme of the Italian Space Agency (ASI). While it benefits from contributions from France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, the industrial prime contractor is ELV Spa, 30% of which is owned by ASI while 70% by Avio SpA. An Italian enterprise, Vitrociset, is the prime contractor for the ground segment.
The inaugural flight will qualify the overall Vega system, but will not carry a “dead load” to minimise risks. Nine (mainly university-made) CubeSats will be put into orbit, and a new younger brother will finally join the European launcher family.
However, after the maiden flight, the smooth introduction of Vega for commercial exploitation will be guaranteed by European Space Agency’s commitment for five launches, as part of the VERTA programme. The price of its commercial launch services should be about 32 million euros, compatible with that proposed for converted Russian ballistic missiles, which prices were driven up in recent years due to a wave of inflation[ii].
Unless a comprehensive reform intervenes, competition with Indian PLSV vehicle will be instead guaranteed by strict export control provisions included in the American ITAR regulations, applying to any satellite including US parts.
Small satellites, often adopted by organizations with limited budgets, allow cost minimization and are therefore more and more interesting in time of crisis. Unlike most small launchers, Vega is able to place put into polar or low orbits several loads of use at the same time in variable configurations, ranging from a single satellite up to one main satellite plus six microsatellites[iii]. This will also offer new back-up possibilities for customers.
Arianespace, responsible for commercialising launcher and operations, will be provided with higher flexibility to respond to different market demands, including launch services for small satellites or replacing of satellites within constellations[iv]. Since putting in orbit small satellites with a more powerful launcher -like Ariane 5- would be extremely expensive, a smaller launcher will allow cheaper flights and open the market to small enterprises and research entities, widening European capabilities of access to space.
[i] de Selding P., “Vega’s Debut Pushed To End of Launch Window”, in Space News, 3 Feb 2012, http://www.spacenews.com/launch/120203-vega-debut-pushed.html
[ii] de Selding P.B., “Vega Expected to be Price-Competitive With Russian Rockets”, in Space News, 23 Jan 2012, http://www.spacenews.com/launch/012312-vega-expected-price-competitive-with-russian-rockets.html