Italy awards $256 million contract for testing in-orbit robotic satellite servicing

The new colonial movement: The Italian Space Agency yesterday issued a $256 million contract to a partnership of several private European companies — most of which are Italian — to fly a mission testing a variety of in-orbit robotic satellite servicing capabilities.

Thales Alenia Space, a joint venture between Thales of France and Leonardo of Italy, said the group is contracted to design, develop, and qualify a spacecraft capable of performing a range of autonomous robotic operations on satellites in low Earth orbit.

The company did not disclose details about these satellites or specifics about the mission, but said the servicer would have a dexterous robotic arm and test capabilities that include refueling, component repair or replacement, orbital transfer, and atmospheric reentry. The servicer will be launched with a target satellite, Thales Alenia Space spokesperson Cinzia Marcanio said, and both will be fitted with an interface for a refueling mission.

The partnership also includes the Italian companies Telespazio, Avio, and D-Orbit.

The significance of this deal is that Italy has gone outside the European Space Agency (ESA) to do it. For decades all European projects would be developed and flown through ESA. Italy appears to be have finally realized that it does not need that partnership, that in fact that partnership acts to hinder its own companies by requiring any mission to use companies from other nations. This deal instead keeps almost everything inside Italy.

We have seen a similar pattern in both Germany and the United Kingdom. The former has been working to encourage private German rocket companies, independent of ESA. The latter is doing the same in the UK, while also encouraging private British spaceports to launch those rockets.

These efforts strongly suggest that ESA’s monumental failure with the Ariane-6 — which is years late and will cost too much to fly — has been causing its member nations to rethink that partnership, and increasingly go it alone. ESA failed to provide them a competitive alternative for getting their payloads into orbit. They are now looking for ways to do it themselves.

Italy funds development by Avio of smallsat rocket and methane engine

In a move that might eventually separate Italy from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Arianespace commercial division, the Italian government on March 13, 2023 announced that it has committed $308 million to the Italian company Avio to develop both a methane-fueled engine and the smallsat rocket to go with it.

The money will be used by Avio on two projects, one to develop an upgraded version of its M10 methane-fueled engine that has already completed two dozen static fire tests, and the other to develop the smallsat rocket, with a targeted first launch in 2026.

While the investment is officially in partnership with the ESA, its wholly-Italian nature suggests in the end it will not be part of Arianespace, but function as an independent competing rocket operated and owned by Avio, which is also the company that developed Arianespace’s Vega family of rockets.

If Italy allows Avio to pull free of ESA and operate as a separate competing rocket company, it will do Europe a favor. Right now the monopolistic nature of ESA is preventing it from competing successfully in the new commercial launch market. Having separately owned and competing private companies will only energize this European industry, which has generally been moribund for years.

ESA attributes Vega-C launch failure to faulty nozzle from the Ukraine

The European Space Agency (ESA) has concluded that the launch failure of the second stage of Arianespace’s Vega-C rocket on December 20, 2022 was caused by a faulty nozzle produced by a company in the Ukraine.

[T]he Commission confirmed that the cause was an unexpected thermo-mechanical over-erosion of the carbon-carbon (C-C) throat insert of the nozzle, procured by Avio in Ukraine. Additional investigations led to the conclusion that this was likely due to a flaw in the homogeneity of the material.

The anomaly also revealed that the criteria used to accept the C-C throat insert were not sufficient to demonstrate its flightworthiness. The Commission has therefore concluded that this specific C-C material can no longer be used for flight. No weakness in the design of Zefiro 40 has been revealed. Avio is implementing an immediate alternative solution for the Zefiro 40’s nozzle with another C-C material, manufactured by ArianeGroup, already in use for Vega’s Zefiro 23 and Zefiro 9 nozzles.

The press release goes to great length to reassure everyone that these Ukrainian nozzles are still flightworthy, that the fix is merely changing the material used in the nozzle’s throat insert.

Rocket Lab & ESA complete launches

Very early today from New Zealand Rocket Lab successfully launched the first of two quickly scheduled launches for the National Reconnaissance Office, designed to demonstrate its ability to achieve fast scheduling and rapid turnaround. The second launch is targeting July 22, 2022, only ten days later.

Also today the European Space Agency (ESA) successfully completed the first launch of its new upgraded Vega-C rocket, putting its prime payload (a passive test satellite) plus six cubesats into orbit. Though ESA says it will eventually hand over operations to Arianespace, its commercial arm, the rocket itself is mostly built by the Italian company Avio. Also, the rocket’s solid rocket first stage will be used as an optional side booster on the Ariane-6 rocket ArianeGroup is building for ESA.

Though ESA launched Vega-C, as it will eventually be managed by Arianespace I include it in that company’s total, which is now three launches for 2022.

The leaders in the 2022 launch race:

29 SpaceX
22 China
9 Russia
5 Rocket Lab

American private enterprise. now leads China 42 to 22 in the national rankings, and the entire globe 42 to 38.

New Arianespace Vega-C rocket being prepared for first launch in April

Engineers in French Guiana are now preparing all the components of the first Vega-C rocket, built by the Italian company Avio, for its first launch in April.

Vega-C is an upgraded version of the Vega rocket and is currently set to launch no earlier than April 2022. The rocket will feature improved first and second stage solid rocket motors, an upgraded liquid-fueled AVUM+ upper stage, and usher in an era of propulsion system commonality between the Vega and Ariane rocket lines.

At the moment they are modifying the Vega launchpad and building a new mission control center. Once completed in March they will stack the rocket.

Vega-C, like its predecessor, is powered by solid rockets, which Avio believes can be competitive with reusable rockets, at least for the next decade or so. Arianespace also hopes to lower costs by using the exact same solid rocket boosters on both Vega-C and its new Ariane 6 rocket. Vega-C’s first stage, using a P120C solid rocket motor, is also used as side boosters on Ariane 6.

ESA confirms cause of November Vega launch failure

The European Space Agengy (ESA) has now completed its full investigation of a Vega rocket launch failure in November, and confirmed that the initially announced cause of “human error” was correct.

Engineers had installed cables backwards causing the nozzle in the upper stage to go one way when it should have gone the other.

The press release at the link is a wonder of bureaucratic cover-your-behind gobbly-gook, saying much without providing any concrete information about the corrections imposed. For example, the upper stage structure is built by one company, Airbus, the engine is built by two Russian companies, Yuzhnoye and Yuzhmash, while a fourth company, Avio, supervises the stage’s assembly. The press release makes it a point to not tell us where the error was made by which company, though by vague implication it suggests the error occurred during final assembly by Avio.

If I was a satellite company thinking of buying a Vega launch I would demand a much more straight-forward explanation. Otherwise I’d go elsewhere.

Arianespace: Cause of Vega launch failure “human error”

According to Arianespace officials, today’s failure of their Vega rocket likely occurred because of “human error” in the installation of cables.

Engineers concluded that cables leading to thrust vector control actuators on the upper stage were inverted, apparently a mistake from the assembly of the upper stage engine, according to Roland Lagier, Arianespace’s chief technical officer. The thrust vector control system pivots the upper stage engine nozzle to direct thrust, allowing the rocket to control its orientation and steering.

The cabling problem caused the engine to move its nozzle in the wrong direction in response to commands from the rocket’s guidance system. That resulted in the rocket losing control and tumbling just after ignition of the upper stage engine around eight minutes after launch.

Lagier characterized the inverted cables as a “human error,” and not a design problem.

The next obvious question is the source of the error. The answer was not revealed, I think partly because of the number of contractors involved in building that upper stage:

The AVUM upper stage’s structure is produced by Airbus, and the Ukrainian rocket contractors Yuzhnoye and Yuzhmash supply the AVUM stage’s main engine, which consumes hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide propellants. Avio, the Vega rocket’s Italian prime contractor, oversees final integration of the AVUM upper stage.

The goal of the investigation that will now follow will be to point that source among these contracts, and how their interaction might have contributed to it.

Arianespace’s Vega rocket fails again at launch

Early today Arianespace’s Vega rocket failed, for the second time in its last three launches, to put two satellites into orbit.

A liquid-fueled upper stage — known as the Attitude and Vernier Upper Module, or AVUM — was supposed to fire four times Monday night to place the Spanish SEOSAT-Ingenio Earth observation satellite and the Taranis research spacecraft from the French space agency CNES into slightly different orbits at an altitude of roughly 420 miles (676 kilometers) .

But something went wrong just after the first ignition of the AVUM fourth stage. “After the first nominal ignition of the last stage engine, an anomaly has occurred, which caused a trajectory deviation entailing the loss of the mission,” said Avio, the Vega rocket’s Italian prime contractor, in a statement. “Data analyses are in progress to determine the causes.”

This is bad new for Europe’s space effort. It will likely but a crimp in the development of their two next generation rockets, the Ariane 6 and the Vega-C, as the upper stage that failed involves all the contractors building those rockets, Airbus and Avio.

The failure of this particular engine also badly damages the future of the two Ukrainian contractors, Yuzhnoye and Yuzhmash, who built it. They have lost all business with Russia because of the war between those two countries, and now have this failure to darken their resume with the rest of the world.

ESA maps out first launch schedule for new rockets

Capitalism in space? The European Space Agency (ESA) today laid out the development roadmap that will lead to the launch of two new rockets, the Vega-C being built by the Italian company Avio, and the Ariane 6 being built by ArianeGroup.

The Vega-C is a more powerful version of the Vega rocket, aimed at capturing the smaller satellite market. It maiden flight is now scheduled for June ’21.

The Ariane 6 is aimed at replacing the Ariane 5, Europe’s big workhorse rocket, but to do so at a lower cost. Its maiden flight is now set for the second quarter of ’22, a significant delay from the previously announced target date in ’21, which itself was a delay from the original late ’20 launch date.

Ariane 6 however has not succeeded in cutting costs enough to match its competitor SpaceX, and thus it continues to have trouble attracting customers, even among ESA’s partner nations that it is meant to serve. These issues have led to rumors that ESA is already looking to either significantly upgrade Ariane 6 (before it even flies), or replace it entirely wit a new re usable rocket.