The European Space Agency and its launch operator, Arianespace, have declared their new light launcher, Vega, to be "fully functional" following its second flight success in two attempts.
The 2h flight from the ESA's Kourou, French Guiana space centre on the night of 6-7 May was described by agency and Arianespace as an "intricate mission" demonstrating the launcher's flexibility, requiring five upper-stage burns to deliver three satellites - including Vega's first commercial passenger - to two different Sun-synchronous orbits. The mission closed with a final burn to de-orbit the upper stage rather than leave it as orbiting debris.
Vega, which features three solid-fuel stages and a liquid-fuelled upper stage, made its 1h maiden qualification flight in February 2012. That first flight delivered an Italian scientific payload and several research cubesats.
The second flight - originally scheduled for 2 May but delayed, first for further gantry checks and then because of the weather - orbited two Earth observation satellites - the ESA's Proba-V at 540 miles (870km) altitude and Vietnam's first satellite, VNREDSat 1A, at 650km, along with Estonia's first satellite, the ESTCube-1 technology demonstrator.
European Space Agency
The mission was the first step in the multilaunch Vega Research and Technology Accompaniment campaign to establish Vega as an unsubsidised, cost-competitive vehicle to orbit scientific, Earth observation and even telecommunications satellites for European and non-European institutions and commercial customers. It also marked the first use of a dual-payload adaptor called Vespa.
Vespa highlights the mission flexibility that is a key part of Vega's intended appeal. ESA launchers director Antonio Fabrizi believes the price of a mission will come down to €35-45 million ($46-59 million) - a range the ESA and Arianespace believe will make Vega a launcher of choice. The rocket's sweet spot is to place a 1.5t payload into a 750km orbit, ideal for Earth observation or scientific missions, but the Vespa adaptor and restartable upper stage allow for a mix of large and small payloads.
Even the experience of one launch has cut the launch campaign time by more than 20%, and, says Fabrizi, the market for launches is strong, so he is confident that three flights per year can be achieved. This volume will allow the ESA's industrial partners to reduce the cost sufficiently to meet that €35-45 million launch price target.
Significantly, Vega gives the ESA a full range of launch options. The medium-lift Soyuz, which can fly from either Kourou or Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazahkstan, is being used to orbit Europe's Galileo navigation satellites. The hugely reliable heavy-lift Ariane 5 is arguably the launcher of choice for hefting telecommunications satellites to the highest, geosynchronous orbits. Work is under way to replace that rocket by the early 2020s. Ariane 6 will bear some resemblance to Vega, with an all-solid main stages configuration. The new launcher will be designed to match or exceed Ariane 5's reliability and precision while dramatically reducing production time and cost.