On the wave of Vega’s success, Member States at the ESA Ministerial meeting in December 2014 agreed to develop the more powerful Vega-C to respond to an evolving market and to long-term institutional needs.
Vega-C is expected to debut in 2020, increasing performance from Vega’s current 1.5 t to about 2.2 t in a reference 700 km polar orbit, covering identified European institutional users’ mission needs, with no increase in launch service and operating costs.
The participating states in this development are: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.
The main objectives are to increase performances, reduce operating costs, provide cost-efficient launch services and reduce the dependency on non-European sources in launcher production at no extra cost.
Additional modifications are being studied to enable Vega to carry micro- and nanosatellites in order to be cost-effective in this emerging market.
Vega-C is based on the existing Vega launcher and comprises four stages. Three stages will use solid-propellant motors and one will use liquid propellants.
The first stage is based on the P120C, the largest monolithic carbon fibre solid-propellant rocket motor ever built. Its development relies on new technologies derived from those of P80, Vega’s current first stage motor and will provide a significant increase in performance. The P120C will also be used for the liftoff boosters on Ariane 6.
The second stage with the new Zefiro-40 (Z40) motor will contain about 36 t of solid propellant providing an average thrust of 1100 kN.
The Zefiro-9 third stage, currently used on Vega, burns 10 t of solid propellant.
The AVUM+ upper stage for orbital positioning and attitude control is derived from the current Vega AVUM but has a lighter structure. It carries more propellant inside larger tanks and features several new European-developed components. AVUM+ has a propellant mass of 0.74 t and the main engine will provide an average thrust of 2.45 kN.
A larger fairing with an increased payload envelope (diameter 3 m) to accommodate larger satellites is also being developed. It will be suitable for Earth observation satellites of more than two tonnes, and the Space Rider reentry vehicle.
The total length of Vega-C is about 35 m with a mass at liftoff of 210 t – a significant increase over the current Vega’s 130 t.
Vega-C will be launched from the same site used for Vega at Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.
Vega-C way forward
ESA is overseeing procurement and the architecture of the overall launch system, while industry is building the rocket with ELV SpA as prime contractor. An industrial cooperation agreement has been signed between ASL and Avio for the P120C solid motor.
The Launch System Critical Design Review was achieved in February 2019, marking the start of the design qualification phase.
The evolution requires modifications to the Vega launch pad and mobile gantry, such as a more powerful crane, new pallets, and modified fluid services. These modifications are being made in such a way to keep the pad and gantry compatible with both vehicles during the period when launches of Vega will be alternated with Vega-C.