Vega C is ready for the maiden flight: launch is scheduled for 13 July at 13.13

Vega C is ready for the maiden flight: launch is scheduled for 13 July at 13.13

Vega C is ready for the maiden flight

Kourou, French Guiana - While the institutional representatives of Italy and France are waiting, and with them the director general of the European Space Agency, Josef Aschbacher, the president of the Italian space agency, Giorgio Saccoccia, and the managers of the industrial realities involved, ArianeSpace and Avio, preparations are in full swing at the Center Spatial Guyanais. Almost everything is ready.

It does not always happen that a mission, although directed beyond the sky, is so awaited and shared. Thanks to its protagonist, he is so ready. A few days ago on its ramp at the spaceport of French Guiana, Vega C, the new European launcher with an Italian heart, is preparing to fly beyond the atmosphere for the first time.

The maiden flight, as it is called in jargon, it is a milestone for any launch system. It is the apex of a long and complex planning, implementation and verification process, it is the definitive validation. At the time of writing these lines, that of Vega C is set for 13 July, at 13:13 Italian time.

The entrance of the European Spaceport of Kourou, in French Guiana (photo: Cnes)

Largely built by Avio, already at its first launch Vega C will have to position the load it carries different orbits, demonstrating the wide versatility that distinguishes it. In fact, in its ogive it houses the satellite "Lares 2", built for ASI by the National Institute of Nuclear Physics (Infn), and six cubesats selected by ESA, of which three are Italian ("AstroBio", by Inaf and Asi, “Alpha”, by Arca Dynamics, and “Greencube”, by La Sapienza University), two French made by the University of Montpellier and a Slovenian, by the University of Maribor.

The main load, “Lares 2”, is a reflective sphere 42 centimeters in diameter. Created with scientific partners such as Centro Fermi, La Sapienza and Ohb Italia, it will allow Albert Einstein's general relativity to be tested with an unprecedented level of accuracy and, just like his predecessor, he will fly aboard a launcher at his debut (Lares had left in Vega's maiden flight). Together, the seven satellites will be part of the VV21 mission, lasting a total of two hours and fifteen minutes, which will inaugurate a new chapter for European launchers.

The scientific satellite "Lares 2" in Ohb Italia's factories before the integration on Vega C (photo: Ohb Italia / Asi)

The characteristics of the system created in the Colleferro plants, just outside Rome, aim to respond to the new paradigms, primarily commercial, of the sector space. Vega C - whose “C” stands for “Consolidation” - is the first evolution of the European Vega light-load rocket. 34.8 meters tall and with a launch mass of 210 tons, it will be able to carry up to 2,200 kilograms into low Earth orbit (compared to Vega's 1500). It will be more flexible and versatile than its predecessor, having the ability to transport 90% of the satellites on the market in the orbits closest to the Planet, those up to about one thousand kilometers of altitude (so-called “Leo”). The “first Vega”, a space in Italy bet born not without skepticism and then won thanks to a system that became a leader in its commercial segment, accounted for 50% of the market.

"Vega C expresses between 50 and 60 percent more performance than Vega, it has bigger engines, first and second stages", the CEO of Avio, Giulio Ranzo, explained to the press. day ago in Rome. The configuration of the new launch system is based on that of Vega, but with substantial improvements: like its predecessor, Vega C will have three stages with solid propellant engines and one stage with liquid propellant engines.

The first is the new P120C engine, more powerful than Vega's P80, and also destined to become the side booster of the new European medium-heavy launcher, the Ariane 6 (whose debut has been postponed to 2023). The second stage is the new Zefiro 40, also more powerful than its predecessor Zefiro 23, with an average thrust of about 1,110 Kn. The third is the Zefiro 9 engine, shared with the Vega. The last stage, with liquid propellant and able to reignite several times, is the Avum +, responsible for the final positioning of the loads in the designated orbits. At the end of the mission, Avun + will allow the so-called de-orbiting, in order to destroy itself by re-entering the atmosphere, as prescribed by the European space debris reduction policy.

A diagram of the new European Vega C launcher, made in a good part of the Italian Avio (image: Esa)

"We have a fairing, the ogive that contains the satellites, which has double the volume and this allows more flexibility, allows you to embark on different satellites, plus a series of innovations of the subsystems with an important technological update "continued Ranzo.

It is no coincidence that even before its debut, Vega C shows off nine booked shipments on its agenda. “It is significant for a product that has never flown”. These are orders for European and international customers. "For ESA we have the Copernicus of the European Commission (satellites for the observation of the Earth of the constellation that monitors the environment and climate change), then Flex and Altius", the latter prototypes of scientific experimentation for monitoring vegetation and gases atmospheric. Then, the international missions for other countries: "Theos for Thailand, Formosat of Taiwan, Compsat of South Korea" all probes for Earth observation, to be placed in low earth orbit.

It is the proof how Vega C declines some of the disruptive trends of a new approach to space: reduction of access costs to orbit and miniaturization of technologies, including those of payloads, which are the reason and basis of economic sustainability for each launch.

As the maiden flight will aim to demonstrate, a substantial part of the payloads can be launched by Vega C by exploiting its ability to carry several in a single journey, thanks to the "Small Spacecraft Mission Service" (or Ssms), an adapter capable of housing over 50 micro-satellites at a time. It means not only being able to embark large and heavy satellites, but above all being able to transport large quantities of smaller dimensions to their destination, in order to meet the needs of private companies and institutions by dividing the costs.

A decrease also possible thanks to orders “Indirect”, like the one signed by Arianegroup with Amazon, for the putting into orbit of 19 satellites of the Kuiper constellation. To satisfy it it will be necessary to take advantage of the Ariane 64, a configuration that uses four P120Cs at a time. “These are important volumes, which by promoting production on a scale will make it possible to reduce the costs of each engine. An advantage that will also benefit Vega C "confirmed Avio's number one.

Among the tasks already assigned, the new European launcher will also have that of bringing Space Rider, the unmanned mini-shuttle of the Hex. Perhaps as early as 2024 or 2025, the new spacecraft will depart from Kourou and then remain in orbit for weeks, hosting scientific experiments and tests on materials in microgravity conditions. Having completed its task, Space Rider will return to the ground, to be reused.

A “green” generation is already in the works The signing of the two “Next Gen Eu” contracts. From left: Daniel Neuenschwander, Vittorio Colao and Giulio Ranzo (photo: Mitd)

Even before Vega C takes off, work is already underway on its heir: Vega E, where the E stands for Evolution, is at horizon of the next ESA ministerial council. "We await funding until completion, in 2026 - explained Ranzo - the ongoing development of the new methane and liquid oxygen engines is going very well, we are in the sixth test on land".

The two "Next Gen Eu" contracts signed last June 29 in Rome, in the presence of the Minister for technological innovation and transition, are dedicated to the new generation of eco-sustainable (and potentially reusable) engines digital, Vittorio Colao, the ESA Director of Space Transport, Daniel Neuenschwander, and Ranzo. Financed by the Department for Digital Transformation thanks to the resources of the National Recovery and Resilience Plan and to National Funds for a total value of 337.5 million euros, the contracts are the first step of two important programs for access to the extra-atmosphere: the first, to which 217.5 million is allocated, is aimed at the implementation, by 2026, of new technologies and architectures for a small two-stage launcher, powered by natural gas engines and with a reduced environmental impact. The second, worth 120 million euros, is instead destined for the development from scratch of a high-thrust engine, to be tested by 2026 and with the same "green" characteristics.

Thanks to these investments, according to Ranzo, "Italy will have full capabilities to answer any question for space launches and space transport". He is echoed by Neuenschwander, according to whom the new generation of Vega represents "a strategic asset that contributes to freedom of action for Europe in space", which is why, with the signing of the two contracts, "it will be offered in the future to market the next generation of versatile, competitive and increasingly environmentally conscious launch services ". In the project, ESA plays the role of Contracting Authority, while the program will be supervised by the Prime Minister, the Italian Space Agency and the Minister of Technological Innovation and Digital Transition.

The programs will be led by the Colleferro company as main contractor and supported by an industrial supply chain, research centers and Italian universities. In fact, Avio has already declared its intention to involve innovative start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises to accelerate the development cycle. In parallel, the company has launched a hiring plan to strengthen its staff pool in the engineering and operations sectors. In the most recent months alone, 150 new hires have been finalized, which have brought the total number of people employed by the company to over a thousand.

These are all signs of a political, industrial and economic will, oriented to a competitiveness in the launcher sector, which is essential to remain high over the next twenty years. This is also why the Vega C maiden flight is the first door to the future. Also for this reason, at the European spaceport of Kourou, everyone is thrilled to have everything ready for July 13th.

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