PARIS — The European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian government-industry joint venture that builds Europe’s Vega rocket has tentatively concluded that British government’s interest in its own launch base is unlikely to generate a profit.
As a result, ELV SpA, the joint venture between Avio SpA and the Italian Space Agency that is leading Vega program’s evolution to launch groups of satelites weighing between 1 kilogram and 2,300 kilograms, is not involved in the British effort.
Instead, ELV and ESA, joined by space-infrastructure manufacturer Thales Alenia Space, are pushing forward with Vega improvements that will lower its cost and offer regular ride-share opportunities for owners of small satellites.
$106 million in Vega-related contracts signed with ESA Nov. 30
ESA, Avio and Thales Alenia Space on Nov. 30 signed two contracts related to how they see Vega’s evolution.
The first, valued at 36.7 million euros ($43.5 million), is to continue design of the Space Rider, a reusable space laboratory that would be launched on a Vega into a 400-kilometer equatorial orbit. The unmanned vehicle would carry up to 800 kilograms of experiement payload and remain in orbit for two months before returning to Earth for a soft glide landing.
Giorgio Tumino, Vega and Space Rider development manager at ESA, said the program goal is to fly the same structure for six times, with each flight costing about 40 million euros including the necessary refurbishment between flights. Space Rider builds on ESA’s Italian-led Intermediate Experimental Vehicle (IXV), which made a successful flight in 2015.
Space Rider, initially approved by ESA governments in December 2016, is scheduled to reach its critical design review in late 2019, in time for full development go-ahead at an ESA ministerial conference scheduled then.
The second contract signed here Nov. 30, valued at 53 million euros, is for design work on a a third version of the Vega rocket, called Vega-E. The initial Vega rocket has been successful in its first 11 flights. It will be succeeded by Vega-C, which carries more payiload for the same cost as Vega and is scheduled to make its inaugural flight in 2019.
Vega-E would not have increased power but would cost substantially less than Vega-C by replaceing two Vega-C stages with a single liquid oxygen/methane-powered stage. Pending ESA governments’ agreement Vega-E would begin development around 2024.
ESA and Avio are already designing a payload adaptor capable of carrying multiple small satellites, called the Small Satellite Mission Service (SSMS), which will make a proof-of-concept flight in 2018 or 2019 — before its critical design review — before entering regulat operation by 2022.
SSMS, capable of carrying multiple small sateliltes weighing as little as 1 kilogram or a single 2,300-kilogram satellite, is ESA’s current offer to the fast-growing small-satelilte sector.
Avio: We dont see a sustainable business model in a cubesat-dedicated rocket
The Avio work on Vega iterations has given the company all the building blocks it needs to make what has been tentatively named a Vega E- Light vehicle, which would carry a total volume of 400-500 kilograms into low Earth orbit. Another version, called Vega E Light-Plus, would carry 1,400-1,500 kilograms of satellite payload.
Avio Chief Executive Giulio Ranzo said the company is looking at the market potential for minisatellite-dedicated versions but has made no decision.
Stefano Bianchi, ESA’s Vega program director, said here Nov. 30 that ESA has contracted with industry for five feasibility studies for min-launchers but for now has made no decision to invest. Bianchi said the mini-launcher market may be left best to industry to develop.
The British government’s exploration of its own spaceport is an example of the difficulty.
Andrea Preve, ELV’s managing director, said Avio is not heavily involved in the British discussion despite the company’s expertise because it does not see how to close the business case.
Preve said a vehicle dedicated to launching cubesats weighing a few kilograms each would have trouble reaching break-even given the cost of building and maintaining a spaceport.
Avio officials are also concerned that a vertical-launch rocket from British territory would face a complicated route through the atmosphere to avoid nearby islands and offshore oil production.
The British government itself has committed only to assuring that Britain’s regulatory regime is no obstacle to a future commercial spaceport operator or to small-satellite owners.
If UK won’t finance launch-service development, will private sector?
The UK government on Nov. 27 released a UK Industrial Strategy that is long on the “exciting opportunity” of a spaceport but short on financial commitment.
The 50 million British pounds ($67 million) offered by the strategy will be released only “subject to business case.” The strategy evoked 99 million pounds previously approved for a National Stelite Testing Facility, to open in 2020. But this facility plays to the existing British industrial strength in small sateliltes. It is not principally a launch-support program.
Twenty-six proposals for spaceport development were submitted to the U.K. Space Agency in August. A decision on whether any will receive grants is expected by March 2018.
The British government has said that to take full advantage of the wave of small satellites being developed, it wants a domestic launch service operational by 2020 — a goal few in the U.K. believe possibe even if an existing foreign rocket were imported to operate from British soil.
Briish government officials are conducting a six-stop roadshow, to end in December, to promote the idea of a spaceport.
ArianeGroup/Arianespace: Mini-satellites don’t need a mini-launcher
The effort has had little resonance in the rest of Europe. Airbus Defence and Space, which is prime contractor for France’s M51 strategic missile and for the Ariane rocket family, shelved its Sparrow minisatellite launch vehicle after concluding it would not work as a profit-making business.
ArianeGroup’s Arianespace launch-service provider has also studied the idea of a minilauncher but for now has concluded that aggregating small satellite owners on larger vehicles is more prudent.
“As of today, we think the best solution for microsatellites is not a micro launcher, but a ride-share offer on Vega-C and Ariane 6,” Israel said Nov. 24 during a space-policy conference.
Israel was responding to a question from Tom Wilkinshaw, chief executive of startup microsatellite builder Alba Orbital of Scotland.
Wilkinshaw, repeating a common complaint of cubesat builders, said there are not enough affordable launch options to handle the growth of the cubesat sector.
But at least one market analysis concludes that the dedicated cubesat vehicles being designed will be much more costly than the ride-share options proposed today:
Wilkinshaw focused his remarks on the British government’s space policy on the regulatory reform that small-satellite builders hope will reduce the third-party-liability-insurane obligations now embedded in British law.
The current rules, designed to cover large satellites in geostationary orbit, force cubesat license-holder to insure each of their satellites for 60 million pounds. British regulators are now reviewing a modification of the regulation.