ESA Signs Contracts to Improve Ariane 5, Vega Boosters

Vega launch vehicle (Credit: ESA–Stephane Corvaja, 2015)

PARIS (ESA PR) — ESA Director of Space Transportation, Daniel Neuenschwander, signed five contracts with industry at the Paris Air and Space show in France this week.

“Five contracts, one goal: to consolidate space transportation services and capacities for the benefit of Europe’s competitiveness,” he commented.

Contracts signed with ELV SpA and Airbus Safran Launchers will improve launch performance and flexibility, and maintain the competitiveness of Europe’s current and future space transportation systems.

Vega and Vega-C Dispenser Will Capture Light Satellites Market

Vega and Vega-C are expected to capture a significant portion of the launch market through extended capability to deploy multiple light satellites below 500 kg using the new versatile Small Satellites Mission Service dispenser.

The contract, signed on 20 June between ESA and ELV SpA at Le Bourget, brings the work up to completion next year with launch on the Vega proof-of-concept flight scheduled in 2018, as well as the detailed design and process activities for the configuration planned for Vega-C.

Improved Performance and Ground Infrastructure for Vega-C

The contract for the development of a more powerful small launcher, Vega-C, was signed between ESA and ELV SpA, the industrial prime contractor, in August 2015.

An upgrade of Vega-C was approved by the ESA participating states at the Ministerial Conference in December 2016. The additional performance, improved avionics and mission flexibility and expanded fairing volume can capture a wider market of satellites up to 2.2 t in the reference 700 km polar orbit.

It involves further adaptation of the ground segment, which is closely linked with the launcher system design, integration and operation.

ESA and ELV SpA concluded negotiations for the upgrades of the Vega-C development up to completion, and both parties signed a letter of intent on 20 June at le Bourget for the Contract Change once the Industrial Policy Committee approves the ESA Proposal in its next meeting, planned for 27–28 June.

Ariane 5 ECA Increased Performance and Competiitveness

Today, ESA and Airbus Safran Launchers, the industrial prime contractor for Ariane 5 ECA, signed a contract for additional complementary development activities that will increase the launcher’s performance up to 10.2 t net payload in geostationary orbit by 2019.

Dual launches could accommodate one big satellite in the range 6.0–6.5 t and a small satellite of up to 3.5–3.7 t, at less cost, made possible through larger upper stage propellant tanks and a lighter Vehicle Equipment Bay.

Ariane 5 Adaptation for the James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope is a collaborative project between NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency.

Today, ESA signed a contract with Ariane 5 prime contactor Airbus Safran Launchers for dedicated engineering and qualification activities that enable the launcher to carry the payload to the L2 Lagrange Point in October 2018.

Methane Engines Lower Propulsion Costs

Today, ESA has given Airbus Safran Launchers the go-ahead to start working on a full-scale prototype of an ultra-low cost engine demonstrator, Prometheus, using liquid oxygen–methane propellants.

The methane reusable engine precursor in the thrust class 1000 kN will be ground tested in 2020 for use on future versions of the European launcher family, after Ariane 6 and Vega-C. Next-generation launch vehicles require a factor 10 reduction in recurrent costs of propulsion systems compared to current cryogenic engines. New propellants, the systematic application of design-to-cost approach and innovative manufacturing technologies will also be applied.

The project can derive and provide significant synergies with other propulsion demonstration projects within ESA’s Future Launchers Preparatory Programme, national agencies and industry.



  • I know the Europeans aren’t the only offenders when it comes to constant tinkering with their LVs, but I think this is half the reason why western LVs cost so much. I think the Russians have a much better model: design an LV, fly the heck out of it, only make gradual improvements (or those needed for obsolescence). The problem is that a LOT of engineers are needed to design an LV, but not so many are needed to serial produce them. It’s the viscous cycle of needing engineers to do the work, then having to find work for engineers to do.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Please explain how the SpaceX Falcon 9 is so cheap then? The Falcon 9 have much more and frequent tinkering than most launch vehicles.

    The usual solution to too many engineers in the aerospace industry is layoff the current work force and hire new cheaper work force when new contracts are gained.

  • Oh, that’s easy: SpaceX isn’t profitable. They aren’t burdening the cost of design and production in the price they charge. Instead, they are using a loss leader strategy to capture market share. They are counting on reusability to drop their costs below their product price before the money runs out.

  • duheagle

    You’re not very well-informed. None of what you assert – despite being widely believed – is actually true.

    The Wall Street Journal’s Andy Pasztor – not exactly a SpaceX fanboy – got ahold of several years worth of SpaceX’s internal financial records some months ago. Given his past – shall we say skepticism? toward just about everything anent SpaceX – he probably expected to find something resembling what you just asserted. He didn’t. The purloined documents showed SpaceX to have been modestly net profitable since at least 2011 except during 2015 and 2016 when there were accidents. Despite the accidents, it still has a strong cash position.

    The reason SpaceX is only modestly net profitable is that it plows nearly all its enviable gross profits back into capital expenditures and recouping development costs – the exact split being unknown but probably biased more toward capital expenditures at this point. In 2018, the balance may well shift more toward development cost recovery.

    SpaceX’s gross profit on a launch, relative to the variable cost of producing the hardware used, is roughly 300%. Gross profits are that high, despite SpaceX’s industry-leading low prices, because its variable cost of production is far lower than most people in other parts of the launch industry believe to be possible.

  • duheagle

    The Europeans do not “constantly tinker” with their launch vehicles. And in the U.S., it’s the firms that hardly ever change their rockets that are the high-cost producers. The Russians differ from the Europeans and the American legacy launch vehicle providers only in that they’ve gotten quite alarmingly sloppy in actually building their long-proven designs in recent years.

    On the other hand, the lowest-cost launch vehicle producer in the world – SpaceX – is also famous for continuously improving its vehicle. SpaceX builds rockets like the Japanese have long built cars – improvements are added at whatever rate they are made.

    As the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy designs reach maturity, the SpaceX engineers will be moved, incrementally, over to the Big Falcon Rocket and Big Falcon Spaceship projects. What comes after that, only Elon knows. But he has hinted that there will be things that come after BFR and BFS. SpaceX’s engineers aren’t going to lack for work.

  • Vladislaw

    “Five contracts, one goal: to consolidate space transportation services and capacities for the benefit of Europe’s competitiveness,” he commented.


    S P A C E X

  • Vladislaw

    Good points.