The launcher has proved a great success in the 6 years since it entered service, lofting satellites to study and observe the surface of our planet for the European Space Agency (ESA), France, Vietnam, Morocco, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Peru and U.S. firm Terra Bella (now Planet).
However, Vega was conceived from the word ‘go’ for a broad array of missions. It’s AVUM upper stage can be restarted in flight up to 5 times, making it a competitive solution for both single and multiple satellite launches, as was the case for its maiden flight on 13 February 2012 when it deployed the LARES satellite and 8 microsatellites and nanosatellites from low-Earth orbit.
Vega is commercially operated by Arianespace from the Guiana Space Centre (CSG), flying 2 to 3 missions a year. Up to January 2019, it has proved its reliability in a competitive market with 13 successful launches out of 13 and has become a key element of Europe’s independent access to space—5 out of its 13 launches so far have been for ESA, with more already planned for the agency in the future.
Development and evolutions
To tailor Vega more closely to the changing market, work is underway on the launcher’s dispenser. Particular attention has been focused on the ability to orbit multiple small satellites and constellations with the new SSMS platform (Small Satellite Mission Service). This is a special carbon-fibre adapter developed with ESA and European Union funding. SSMS offers a range of configurations for orbiting minisatellites (200 to 400 kg), microsatellites (60 to 200 kg) and clusters of nanosatellites most often in CubeSat format, consisting of a cube or combination of cubes 10 cm on a side and weighing less than 25 kg. The first Vega flight with SSMS is scheduled in 2019 to fulfil several contracts signed in the last two years, and a second launch is likely to be manifested in 2020.
The evolutionary architecture of Europe’s smallest launcher is a great asset for the future. Two variants of Vega will operate from 2019, with Vega-C entering service at the end of that year. Offering more lift capacity due to a new P-120C first stage common to Ariane 6 and a new Zefiro Z40 second stage, Vega-C should nevertheless not be more expensive. A second evolution called Vega-E, conceived from the outset to be modular, is already planned for 2025. If ESA decides to validate and pursue the launcher’s development, it could be equipped with a new stage powered by a methane-liquid oxygen engine dubbed M10, which would replace the current Z9 and AVUM stages. Vega is therefore set to remain a feature of the European launcher landscape for at least another decade.
Vega-C will boost the launcher’s performance. Crédits : ESA / J. Huart