Officials Eye New Upper Stage for Vega Rocket

Inaugural Vega flight. (Credits: ESA - S. Corvaja, 2012)

Despite committing almost $1.5 billion to developing and flight testing its newest launch vehicle, Vega, Europe will spend even more money to upgrade the rocket.

European officials are eying the developing of a new German fourth stage to replace a Ukrainian-built RD-868 engine that was used on Vega’s successful inaugural flight on Monday. It’s not clear how much the new engine would cost.

In the wake of the successful launch this week, the head of the Italian Space Agency — which funded 58 percent of the rocket’s development — fielded a call from his German counterpart:

Enrico Saggese, president of the Italian space agency, said he received a call Monday from Johann-Dietrich Woerner, executive chairman of the German Aerospace Center, or DLR. Saggese said Woerner suggested Germany was ready to join the Vega program.

“I must say that we are proud of the seven countries who participated in the program,” Saggese said. “We are ready to have with us other fathers.”

Woerner congratulated Saggese on the successful launch and offered to discuss German support for a European upper stage for Vega, according to Andreas Shutz, a DLR spokesperson.

Vega’s Attitude and Vernier Upper Module, or AVUM, is the launcher’s fourth stage. The AVUM is powered by an RD-869 engine provided by Yuzhnoye of Ukraine, while a Spanish subsidiary of EADS, the largest European defense contractor, builds the stage’s structure and skirt.

AVUM is the only liquid stage on the vehicle and the only one built outside of ESA’s member states. France funded 25 percent of the development costy. Other partners in the program include Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Sweden. German industry has been involved in building some of Vega’s system, but without a funding commitment from the nation’s government.

Full development and flight testing of the Vega rocket, which can place a 1,500-kilogram (3,307-pound) satellite in a 700-kilometer (435-mile) orbit, will cost 1.1 billion euros ($1.45 billion) before the new upper stage engine. In addition to spending 710 million euros ($930 million) on development, ESA is spending another 400 million euros ($523.5 million) on five development flights.

The market for small satellite launches has been dominated by Russian and Ukrainian rockets such as Dnepr and Rockot, which are converted Soviet-era ICBMs. Space News reports that Vega will be competitive with these launchers:

Europe’s Vega small-satellite launcher, whose inaugural flight is scheduled for mid-February, will be sold commercially for about 32 million euros ($42 million) per launch — a price that can compete with converted Russian ballistic missiles, Vega officials said Jan. 23….

“Our belief is that we can charge up to 20 percent more per launch than our biggest competitors and still win business because of the value we provide at the space center here and with Arianespace,” said Francesco De Pasquale, managing director of ELV SpA, the Italian company that is Vega’s prime contractor.

“What we are saying is that we can now deliver the vehicle for 25 million euros to Arianespace,” De Pasquale said in an interview on the eve of Vega’s final tests before flight approval.

“Arianespace’s marketing and service costs will add about 7 million to that figure, which gets us to 32 million euros. This is assuming that we launch only two Vega flights per year. If we can increase the flight rate to four per year — and we believe the market demand will be there — then our price per vehicle can drop to 22 million euros. We assume a corresponding price drop from Arianespace,” De Pasquale said.

Those are pretty good prices. They don’t seem to be sufficient to recover development costs, but I’m guessing that was probably not part of the plan anyway.