What’s Avio up to?
Issue 37. Subscribers 938.
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What’s Avio up to?
On Thursday last week, Arianespace announced that it had signed a contract with the European Commission to launch five Vega C flights carrying Sentinel satellites for the Copernicus programme. This was significant as it brought the total backlog of Vega C flights to 13 putting additional pressure on an already straining supply of RD-843 upper stage engines.
With this in mind, I decided to examine a few of Avio’s development projects to get an overview of where the company is and where it’s going. I also managed to get some additional information about what caused the first commercial Vega C flight to be delayed.
The upper stage engine
The RD-843 engine that powers the Vega Avum and Vega C Avum+ upper stages is built by the Ukrainian aerospace company Yuzhmash. Following Russia’s invasion of the country in early 2022, the supply of these engines became increasingly uncertain, prompting Europe to begin searching for alternatives. Avio does have a stockpile of these engines, but it would not reveal the exact number in stock due to “security reasons.”
During the 2022 ESA ministerial meeting, member states approved over €1.5 billion in funding for the Vega and Ariane 6 programmes. A sub-element of that funding is “product adaptations.” Funding allocated to this sub-element will be used for, among other things, a replacement engine for the Vega C Avum+ upper stage.
According to a source inside ESA, the agency is currently looking at two engines that could serve as a stand-in for the Ukrainian-built RD-843 engine. The first is a European-built engine, and the second is one is from a US-based engine builder. According to my source, one of the options is considerably more solid than the other. However, in-depth reviews will need to be concluded before its suitability can be confirmed. In response to a query, ESA told me that member states provided €40 million at the 2022 ministerial meeting to manage the consequences of the Ukrainian crisis on Vega.
While ESA searches for this stopgap, Avio is in the process of developing a new bespoke engine for the Avum+ upper stage in the same class as the RD-843. The new upper stage engine will, according to Avio, be “more versatile” and will also be suitable for application on Space Rider and in-orbit service modules.
The new engine will not be cryogenic and will instead utilize storable propellants. Integration of the new engine will require some sub-system adaptation, but Avio intends to utilize the stage’s existing tanks and structure.
Avio will develop the new engine in-house and will receive support for this endeavor from the Italian Space Agency. The company hopes to bring the new engine online by late 2024. They do, however, admit that this projection is ambitious.
Vega C Light
The Vega C Light project was envisioned to be a dedicated ride to space for satellites that would otherwise have flown aboard a rideshare mission. The three-stage vehicle would have utilized the Zefiro 40 second stage and Zefiro 9 third stage from Vega C for its first two stages. The upper stage would be a variant of the Avum upper stage that would replace the liquid propulsion system with a solid fuel alternative. Vega C Light would have been approximately 17 metres tall with a payload capacity of up to 300 kilograms to a 500 km SSO orbit.
Despite the Avio website still outlining this version of the vehicle, the company has confirmed with me that the project has since evolved to become a demonstrator for its methalox engine technology.
The project currently doesn’t have a name and is referred to internally as In-Flight Demonstrator or IFD for short. The vehicle is expected to be launched on a maiden flight in 2026. It will have a small payload capacity and will instead be focused on proving the technology that will be applied to the company’s next generation of products.
In parallel, the company is also currently developing the M10 methalox upper stage engine that will be utilized aboard Vega E, Avio’s planned successor to Vega C. It has also received €120 million in funding from the Italian government to develop a first methalox engine. It is, as a result, safe to say that Avio sees its future in methane-powered launch vehicles.
The first commercial flight of Vega C had been scheduled to blast off late last month. However, less than 24 hours before that scheduled launch, Arianespace published a press release explaining that the flight had been delayed due to the discovery of “defective equipment” that would need to be replaced.
On November 25, Arianespace published another update identifying the upper composite as the source of the problem. In order to replace the defective equipment, the upper composite was destacked from the rocket and sent back to the payload preparation facilities. This second update also included a revised launch date, with Arianespace now targeting December 20. This was significant as it required the launch of the Ariane 5 VA259 flight to also be rescheduled to a day earlier in order to allow time for the facility to be reconfigured for the Vega C flight a week later.
In a statement to European Spaceflight, Avio explained that the root cause of the delay has been identified as a small device that drives the opening of the fairing. According to the company, work to replace the component is already underway and is expected to be completed within a week.
According to a November 8 La Tribune article, the former Italian government had petitioned ESA to remove the operation of Vega from Arianespace. It is currently unclear if the new Italian government will support this request and attempt to move forward with it.
When I asked Avio about it, the company denied knowledge of the request and stated that it “cannot speak for the government.” The company described its current relationship with Arianespace as “satisfactory.”
“What we care about is that Vega C is sold and that it captures all possible opportunities, increasing annual flight rates beyond 4/year (towards 5 to 6 per year). Until this is the case, working with Arianespace is satisfactory. In parallel, the sector is certainly evolving, new launchers want to come to the market and Vega C is ready to compete against any of them.”
There is, however, evidence that Avio is laying the groundwork for a split from Arianespace. In July, CNES announced that it had preselected seven companies to launch from a new commercial launch facility being developed at its Guiana Space Centre. One of those companies was Avio. This was surprising as Avio already has launch facilities at the historic spaceport. At the time, I speculated that the move could be the first step towards Avio coming out from the shadow of Arianespace. However, following a request to Avio, the company assured me that it has no plans to “market and manage Vega launches.”
So, could this mean that Avio plans to stick with Arianespace, or is it maybe that its new generation of methalox-based launch vehicles will be separate from Vega? This would certainly explain why Avio is planning on debuting both Vega E and its next-gen demonstrator so close together. This is, however, completely speculative.
Vega is not yet retired
Despite the fact that Vega C is expected to enter operational service with the launch of its first commercial payload later this month, Avio still has as many as three Vega flights that it expects to launch between 2024 and 2025. If the final launch slips into 2026, we may just see Vega, Vega C, and Vega E all launch within the same 12-month period.
Two of the final Vega flights will carry ESA satellites. Biomass is a forest-measuring satellite that was built by Airbus Defence and Space and was expected to be launched in 2024. The Proba-3 mission consists of a pair of satellites that will be launched together to demonstrate technologies and techniques for highly-precise satellite formation flying. The Proba-3 satellites were also expected to be launched in 2024.
Avio is expected to receive a significant windfall following the results of the 2022 ESA ministerial meeting. According to the company, Avio expects to receive more than €700 million in funding starting in 2023 that will be utilized for a number of projects including a program to strengthen Vega C, the completion of Space Rider, a new Italian-led program to build a re-usable upper stage, and planned modifications to the P120 solid rocket motor that is utilized by both Ariane 6 and Vega C. I have also been told by ESA that €300 million has been specifically set aside for the development of Vega E with its new M10-powered upper stage.
This marks a significant increase in funding for the company with less than €500 million being set aside for Avio projects at the 2019 ESA ministerial meeting in Seville. The increase will be a welcome boost to Italy’s aerospace industry and likely be used to foster new opportunities for both fledgling and established space companies.
Maia and the hummingbird - ArianeGroup-backed launch startup MaiaSpace revealed in a job posting for 2023 internship opportunities that it is working on a "KickStage product" with the codename Colibri, which is Spanish for hummingbird. In late October, another MaiaSpace vacancy revealed that the company was exploring a variant of Maia called "debris hunter" that would be focused on tackling the space debris problem. It's unclear how closely the two projects are connected.
Someone forgot a semicolon - UK-based launch startup Skyrora revealed that a "software complication" had been identified as the root cause of the failure of its maiden Skylark L flight in October. The failure saw the rocket splashdown in the Norwegian Seas approximately 500 metres away from the launchpad. With the update, Skyrora promised to share an extended video of the launch attempt. However, the "extended video" did not add much if any additional footage of the failure and cut it between successful flights of smaller vehicles. Ultimately, the whole thing just felt dishonest.
Big money to fight wildfire - German Wildfire monitoring startup OroraTech announced that it had raised €15 million in series A funding. The round was led by Belgium-based climate impact fund, Edaphon alongside existing investors Findus Venture, Ananda Impact Ventures, Wachstumsfonds Bayern 2, ConActivity, APEX Ventures, SpaceTec Capital, and industry experts Ingo Baumann and Clemens Kaiser. Additionally, the round was extended by non-dilutive co-funding from ESA and the Free State of Bavaria.
Time to start building - OHB Italia has signed a contract with ESA to supply an initial batch of 12 satellites for the IRIDE constellation. OHB is leading an industrial consortium to build satellites that includes Telespazio, Optec, and Aresys as its main partners. The first set of 12 satellites is expected to be delivered by November 2024. The contract also included an option for a further batch of 12 satellites that would be delivered by November 2025. IRIDE is an Earth observation constellation that will be composed of satellites of different types and sizes combining SAR, optical, panchromatic, hyperspectral, and infrared sensors. The constellation is expected to be completed by 2026 under the supervision of ESA and ASI.
Space Rider’s got some competition - Thales Alenia Space and Space Cargo Unlimited announced the signing of a phase one contract for the conception and production of REV1, a reusable robotic "space factory" that leans heavily on the technology developed for ESA's Space Rider vehicle. The agreement included the opening of a Space Cargo Unlimited subsidiary in Turin. REV1 is designed to be reusable for up to 20 missions of two to three months apiece.
Hold me back! - Spanish launch startup PLD Space announced that it had successfully completed function tests of its Miura 1 launch pad hold-down system. The system consists of four hydraulic arms that keep the rocket anchored to the launchpad releasing it when commanded by the rocket's onboard computer. In mid-October, PLD Space CEO Raúl Torres told me that the vehicle for the maiden Miura 1 launch would be ready in December, but the launch date would be dependent on several factors. The company currently has a launch window that stretches from December to March.
Phenomenal capabilities. Itty bitty satellites - French aerospace laboratory ONERA signed a contract with NanoAvionics to purchase an 8U and a 6U nanosat platform. The contract includes both the satellite platforms, the integration of the payloads and environmental tests, and the software and hardware to test, validate and operate the satellites. ONERA expects to take delivery of the two platforms in early 2025 with a launch scheduled for later that year.
Skynet gets a set of eyes - Thales Alenia Space and ESA signed a letter of intent to collaborate in supporting the creation of future disruptive space-based solutions in the Earth Observation market. Thales will cooperate with the ESA Φ-lab to explore innovative technologies based on artificial intelligence and their applications to use cases of significant interest to both entities.
Double or nothing - Arianespace announced that it had signed a revised launch contract with Intelsat. The repurposed contract adds a second satellite to a launch in 2025. The flight will carry the IS-41 and IS-44 satellites into orbit aboard an Ariane 6 to expand Intelsat’s global connectivity and 5G reach.
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