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In December 2014, the European Space Agency (ESA) gave the go-ahead to develop Vega C, an upgraded version of its light launcher, with a budget of €395 million and Avio as project prime contractor (originally in a consortium with ASI, the Italian space agency). The objective is to give Vega C a lift capacity exceeding 2.2 tonnes into low-Earth polar orbit (700 km), compared to 1.5 tonnes for Vega, to be able to launch larger satellites and in greater numbers to build and replenish constellations. ESA and its industry partners are seeking with Vega C to cover the full spectrum of launch requirements for institutional and commercial Earth-observation satellites.
The biggest change is on Vega C’s first stage, powered by a new P120C solid-rocket booster. The P120C delivers twice the thrust of its predecessor, the P80, but above all it affords the significant production advantage of being common to the Ariane 6 launcher, which will be powered by two or four P120Cs depending on mission requirements. Produced at a rate of several tens per year, the P120C will thus streamline costs for both programmes.
The other enhancements are on the Z-40 second stage, also powered by a solid-rocket booster and heavier than the Z-23, which it replaces, and on the AVUM+ storable-propellant upper stage, which has a lighter structure and more fuel. Lastly, Vega C’s fairing has also been enlarged from 2.6 metres to 3.3 metres in diameter.
Vega C will lift off at the CSG from the same ELV (Ensemble de Lancement Vega) pad as its predecessor. The launch pad has been extended to allow both variants to operate from the same facilities.
As well as managing the infrastructures at the CSG and the downrange tracking stations, CNES is also involved in developing the P120C stage. In particular, it is supervising the three ground firing tests of the P120C on the BEAP solid booster test stand at the base.