October 08, 2012
Credit: Credit: Kosmotras
Amy Svitak Paris and Naples, Italy
Repurposing Soviet-era ballistic missiles to serve as small-satellite launchers is turning out to be more costly than expected, leaving an opening for players in Europe and elsewhere to field vehicles that could take up the slack.
For months, Russia and Ukraine have been at odds over who should pay to convert and operate the Dnepr rocket, and how to divide revenue from the sale of launch services within ISC Kosmotras, which markets the former SS-18 Satan ICBM. In the meantime, with the promise of cheap, plentiful Russian and Ukrainian rockets slipping away, others are looking to capitalize on the burgeoning smallsat market.
The mostly Italian-built Vega light launcher debuted in February with a near-flawless maiden launch from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, giving the Arianespace consortium that manages it a leg up in the small-satellite market. Priced at $40 million per mission, the Vega rocket—Europe's first all-new launch vehicle development in more than 20 years—is a bit pricey for smallsat operators. Vega managers say the next challenge is to increase the launch rate to four from one per year to reduce per-launch prices and capture what they say is a booming market for small spacecraft.
“Vega addresses a segment of the market which is rapidly growing, and the main segment of this market is Earth-observation,” says Louis Laurent, director of programs for Arianespace. “Internally, we are working on at least 10 different missions for Vega, which is an indication of the interest the market has for this launch vehicle.”
Russia and Ukraine, for the moment, have at least two launchers competing in this same market: the Dnepr, the long-term future of which is now in doubt, and the Rokot, commercial launches of which have been managed since 2002 by a German-Russian joint venture, Eurockot Launch Services of Bremen. The three-stage liquid Rokot, powered by repurposed SS-19 ICBMs and a new Breeze KM upper stage developed by the Krunichev Space Center, has been used for Russian government launches since 2005.
Eurockot Sales Director Peter Freeborn says the Rokot is expected to remain in service through 2019, when Russia's new Angara 1 light launcher is expected to come online. “One often hears rumors that the life of ICBM-based former Soviet-type launchers is nearing its end, but not in our case,” Freeborn says. “Rokot is to stay in the market for a couple of years to come.”
Freeborn says Eurockot has a backlog of four launches for the European Space Agency (ESA), including the planned March launch of the Swarm mission. He says Russia has 75-80 flight-worthy boosters and that improvements to the Breeze KM upper stage have augmented the rocket's payload capacity by 200 kg (440 lb.), giving it the ability to loft 1,500 kg to sun-synchronous orbit (SSO).