Commercial Rockets

VEGA — EU, 2012

Developed mainly in Italy, which is now becoming the dominant EU country for space projects in place of France, this is Arianespace’s new small-payload launcher. It has three solid-fueled stages topped by a hypergolic stage. The bottom stage has a steerable nozzle extension tube for thrust vectoring. It’s basically the same “P80” motor that’s going to be used as a side booster on the Ariane 6. They’re going to lengthen the bottom stage by about 50% in a future version, calling it P120 and dubbing the taller rocket Vega C. With that, they’ll be able to launch a tiny unmanned spaceplane on this thing, which is apparently going to be called Space RIDER. It would launch from Guyana (where the Arianes go up) and land on a runway in the Azores.

Development of the rocket was accompanied by drama in which France at first put up a lot of the money but then pulled out, and Italy threatened to pull their support from Ariane. In the end, Vega was built by a new company formed from parts of FiatAvio by Italy’s space agency. At some point they decided that Vega stood for Vettore Europeo di Generazione Avanzata (Advanced Generation European Vector — apparently in Italian they sometimes call rockets vectors), but really it’s just named after the bright star.

The upper stages are skinnier than the three meter booster — the “Zefiro 23” and “Zefiro 9” solid stages are just 1.9 meters wide. The UDMH-fueled topper is called AVUM and weighs under one ton. A further evolution calls for the third and fourth stages to be replaced by a new methane-burning cryogenic stage. This will be called Vega E and isn’t expected to fly until 2024.

The Vega did go on hiatus for some months after the fifteenth launch, when the second stage blew out its top end. They say it’s fixed now. Overall it’s doing good business, but the European Space Agency is already starting to think that for the exploding small-sat demand, they might need something quite a bit lighter and cheaper.

As mentioned in the Ariane article, the ESA is also working on a very small hydrogen-fueled rocket called Callisto, which will explore the capability of doing vertical landings. It is not intended to fly real payloads; it is strictly a “hopper” testbed for gaining experience at landings and reuse in general. They figure that if it leads to something commercial, that rocket will be larger.

In 2019 they announced a plan to also develop a larger experimental hopper named Themis. In the concept art, this looks very much like a Falcon 9. It would use an inexpensive methane-burning engine named Prometheus, which would also be used in a future Ariane. I guess the idea is to practice the basics of hopping on a small rocket before building a realistically sized one.

Vega: mass 137 t, diam 3 m, thrust 2300 kN, imp 2.7 km/s, type S, payload 1.9 t (1.4%), cost $18M/t (dropping as usage ramps up), record 19/0/1 as of Mar 19, 2022.