VEGA: the European carrier for small satellites
VEGA is a launcher capable of carrying a payload, i.e. a satellite, with a mass of between 300 and 1.500 kg, for low polar orbit, i.e. an orbit inclined at 90° with respect to the equator, at an altitude of 700 km. The design of this launcher was established in Italy and later taken up by the European Space Agency. Italy has supported the development program with 65% of the funding, followed by France with around 12.5%.
VEGA is 30 meters high and has a launch mass of 128 tons. The predecessor, Ariane 5, was more than 50 meters high and had a mass of 710 tons. By lowering the orbit inclination, VEGA can launch heavier payloads, whereas diminishing the payload mass it can achieve higher orbits.
VEGA has three solid propulsion stages, that have the task of escaping gravity, and an additional liquid propulsion stage, between the third stage and the satellite, that controls the launcher's trim, its trajectory, the release of the satellite and the return of the last stage into the atmosphere. P80, Zefiro 23 and Zefiro 9 (the solid propulsion stages) allow the launcher to reach the desired altitude, the fourth (called AVUM) is responsible for releasing the load.
From an industrial point of view, the same Italian companies played a key role: ELV, a company 70% owned by the AVIO group and 30% by the Italian Space Agency, is responsible for the development of the launcher as a whole. AVIO, a Italian world leader in the design and manufacturing of aerospace propulsion component, is responsible for the development and building of the four stages, three solid propellant and AVUM with liquid propellant (the first stage, P80, is the largest monolithic engine ever made with filament winding technology). VITROCISET, Italian company in the field of Information and Communication Technologies is responsible for the implementation of the ground segment, from the launch tower to the integration and test bench. Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands participated to the development of VEGA with lower shares.
Today, putting 1.500 kg satellites into orbit (as are many of those for astronomy or earth observation) with a launcher like Ariane 5 is so expensive to exclude the launch to small and medium sized enterprises or universities and research institutions. VEGA seeks to bridge this gap, providing Europe, i.e. European businesses and bodies, independent and low cost access to space, with savings of approximately 15-20% compared to a launch made with an American carrier.
VEGA was launched from the Kourou launch pad (in French Guiana) on the 13rd of February 2012. Inside, LARES, the all Italian satellite that constitutes the main payloads and the other missions Almasat-1 and the seven CubeSats.