Interview: Giulio Ranzo, CEO, Avio
The European (small) launcher industry is developing at a rapid pace – many new vehicles are currently under development while more launch sites are becoming available across the continent. Small launch organisations aim to provide launch opportunities for the small satellite market soon.
We caught up with Giulio Ranzo, CEO of European small launcher organisation Avio.
It is an exciting time for small launch vehicle manufacturers. What is the status of development of the next-gen Avio-build launcher, the Vega C? Are you still aiming for the maiden flight to take place in 2019?
Avio is perfectly on track with the Vega C development activities. Indeed, respectively in March and July 2018, we carried out the bench tests of the launcher’s second and first stages, namely the Z40 SRM and the P120C SRM, the last one being the common element of the future Vega C and Ariane 6. All the other launcher parts under development at our partners’ and suppliers’ facilities (structures and avionics, above all) are following the timeline leading to the Vega C maiden flight by the end of 2019.
Avio is making great strides with the development of the lightweight P120C solid motor, which will be used in both the first stage booster of Vega C as well as the boosters of the Ariane 6 heavy launch vehicle – it recently performed its first static firing test successfully. What are the challenges and opportunities of using motor engines for large and small vehicles?
The P120C will be the Vega C first stage, while it will equip the Ariane 6 launcher as a booster engine (two boosters for the A62 light version and four for the A64 heavy). This engine represents a propulsive element able to boost, respectively, a two-ton, a-five ton and a 10-ton launch vehicle.
For Avio, the great opportunity is to benefit from producing the P120C at a great yearly rate (say 35 per year for combined Vega C and Ariane 6 volumes), thus lowering the manufacturing unit cost. The main challenge is that the boosters need to be exactly identical in performance and that the annual production rate might be in excess of 30 units, which requires modern industrial infrastructure and lean processes. We are confident because we have realised new factories that are ready to fulfill the promise.
Vega C carries a fourth stage that can carry multiple satellites of different sizes to orbit. It is also capable of stop-starting its engine. What makes this fourth stage so unique?
The Vega C’s fourth stage is similar to the Vega one: same engine and greater liquid fuel tanks able to perform up to 10 stop/start operations. This allows for greater orbital manoeuvres – not only small plane changes, but also altitude and RAAN changes. The uniqueness of this stage lies, therefore, in its ability to serve multiple customers taking them at different orbits during the same flight. We call it flexibility and versatility. This propulsive stage uses storable propellants both for the main thrust and for the roll and altitude control, which means that it does not have the time limitations in operation that a cryogenic upper stage would have. The main motor, the MEA, has demonstrated a strong robustness in the flights carried out so far.
Avio is working on the ESA small launcher competition. How is the study going for you so far and can you give us an update on the status of the study?
The study is now coming to an end and a business case has been presented to ESA. We don’t talk a lot on this topic, but with a concept like ours – based on a Vega derived and simplified configuration and with a streamlined concept of operations – we believe that Avio will be able to deliver an effective dedicated service to those payloads that need a low cost, and flexible and responsive access to space. We are convinced that for small launchers, solid propulsion technology is the right choice to optimise economics and to ensure meeting the responsiveness requirements (i.e. be able to launch with relatively short notice).
The smallsat industry is expected to grow rapidly in the next couple of years, with many constellations planned. How do you see the European smallsat market developing in the next decade and what will that mean for Avio?
It will mean a lot for Avio! Today, most of the (commercial) market is concentrated in the USA and is accessible to any launchers, but we believe Europe will also see growth. Euroconsult forecasts some 7,000 units to be launched by 2027, with constellations accounting for 80% of the future demand. That is why Avio is developing and upgrading the Vega launcher with structures and services tailored for these smallsats (for example, the Vega C’s Vampire payload Adapter, the SSMS Dispenser, the Space Rider and other modules). All these elements will be able to serve our customers by offering rideshare solutions at accessible prices and they represent Avio’s response to this growing segment of the market.
We look forward to welcoming you to Space Tech Expo Europe in November 2019. What are the priorities for your company in the coming year?
We aim at further consolidating our role in the space segment: next year’s SSMS PoC flight and Vega C maiden flight are our priorities to demonstrate our ability to launch any type of satellites (from 1kg to two tons) in any orbits, for any customers. We are leaders in solid propulsion. It will therefore be fundamental to achieve our goals in the frame of liquid propulsion as well, with the Vega E upper stage currently under development. But we need to stay focused on the market evolutions, following its shift towards constellations of commercial smallsats. Vega and its evolutions must continuously adapt to these changes.