Play your own role in the strategic, voracious and lucrative race for satellite launchers. That is the challenge that the successful maiden flight this Wednesday from Kourou of the “small” Vega-C rocket represents for Europe in space. After two failed counts, the 35-meter-high machine rose in the Guyanese sky and simply inaugurated the beginning of the reign of a new generation of launchers for the European Space Agency (ESA).
“This is the culmination of a decision taken in December 2014 by the European Space Agency,” recalls Jean-Marc Astorg, Cnes’ Director of Strategy, replacing the three Ariane 5, Vega and Soyuz launchers with two more competitive launchers on the world market: Ariane 6 and Vega-C. ”To scan all spectra from new satellites, institutional or commercial, small or large, solo or in clusters.
Although the first flight of the Ariane 6 heavy launcher has been postponed to 2023, the range of light launchers has therefore just been successfully modernized. Because Vega-C – “C” for consolidation – is the doped version of its predecessor, built by the same Italian industrialist Avio. It is capable of bringing total masses in low circulation of 2.2 tons compared to 1.5 tons for Vega, launched 20 times, including two failed, since 2012.
17,000 satellites are to be launched in 10 years
And this new ship from the European Navy is timely, while the US SpaceX program plays the lead role in the niche, and demand explodes. “We have a very significant increase in the number of small satellites. It is therefore interesting to have launchers that are well adapted ”, emphasizes Jean-Marc Astorg.
According to the specialized company Euroconsult, more than 17,000 satellites must be launched by 2031, ie 4.5 times more than in the last decade. And among them, a large majority will in truth be small satellites sent in low orbit, as Vega-C now knows how to do. With its increased performance, he can address 90% of the market for low-orbit satellites a few hundred kilometers high, against half for Vega, according to Avio, interviewed by AFP.
Finally, Vega-C will leave less space debris in the wake. Its fourth stage can be re-ignited and allows the satellites to be placed in different orbits before deorbiting themselves.
Sisters and now neighbors
In addition, this Wednesday it is also a small piece of Ariane 6, which relieved. “P120C”, the first phase of the rocket, is a common module with Ariane 6, which will serve as a booster booster. A good quality compatibility for the economy of the two programs. And proof that the fates of the big rocket and its little sister are connected, the central body of an Ariane 6 was placed vertically for the first time on its Kourou launch pad on July 2nd. The assembly of the new generation of large rocket will continue there, combined with a whole battery of tests.
And do not tell Europeans that they are behind Elon Musk. Moreover, the strategy is not the same. Ariane 6 and Vega-C do not include reusable modules like Space X’s famous Falcon 9 rocket. The launch pad is accessible, it is reliable and the price is attractive. Recycling, it does not have the great interest in him, it may even represent a certain number of limitations “, explains the strategy director for Cnes. The rocket that returns, the Europeans are working on it, “with new engines and new protesters”. But it will be more for the next generation. After Ariane 6 and Vega-C. And meanwhile, the small rocket can still drop Space Rider, a small orbital module capable of returning from its mission.