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Vega launcher program courts German participation

Posted: February 14, 2012

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Buoyed by the successful first flight of Europe's Vega launcher, the head of the German space agency Monday moved to open negotiations to build a new upper stage to replace Vega's Ukrainian upper stage orbit-adjust engine.

The first Vega launcher lifted off Monday from French Guiana. Credit: ESA/S. Corvaja
If a deal is made, a new upper stage would bring production of all Vega stages into European Space Agency member states.

Germany is not one of the seven ESA member states contributing money to the Italian-led Vega program, which was developed to offer a European-made launcher for small research satellites.

Vega can launch up to 1,500 kilograms, or 3,306 pounds, into a sun-synchronous orbit 435 miles high.

Enrico Saggese, president of the Italian space agency, said he received a call Monday from Johann-Dietrich Woerner, executive chairman of the German Aerospace Center, or DLR. Saggese said Woerner suggested Germany was ready to join the Vega program.

"I must say that we are proud of the seven countries who participated in the program," Saggese said. "We are ready to have with us other fathers."

Woerner congratulated Saggese on the successful launch and offered to discuss German support for a European upper stage for Vega, according to Andreas Shutz, a DLR spokesperson.

Vega's Attitude and Vernier Upper Module, or AVUM, is the launcher's fourth stage. The AVUM is powered by an RD-869 engine provided by Yuzhnoye of Ukraine, while a Spanish subsidiary of EADS, the largest European defense contractor, builds the stage's structure and skirt.

The AVUM (center) is the only liquid-fueled engine on the Vega rocket. Italy led development of Vega's three solid-fueled stages. Credit: ESA
The liquid-fueled AVUM engine can fire up to five times to inject multiple payloads into different orbits.

According to Stefano Bianchi, ESA's Vega program manager, said the agency's member states will consider a European Vega upper stage at the next space ministers' meeting in late 2012.

"This will not fly in the near future because it takes some time to develop, but it's in our plans for the next ministerial," Bianchi said.

Astrium of Germany is already lead contractor for the Vega launcher's roll attitude control system, a thruster system mounted on the rocket's Ukrainian fourth stage. German industry is also involved in the rocket's telemetry system, according to Bianchi.

But German government support for Vega would make way for larger contributions, such as the European upper stage.

Italy paid for 58 percent of Vega's $1 billion development. France was Vega's second-largest supporter, funding 25 percent of the program.

Other partners include Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Sweden.