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Europe's Vega space launch vehicle has carbon-fibre shell

The European Space Agency’s new Vega launch vehicle could mark a new generation of space launch vehicles that have a shell made from carbon fibre.

Italian-based Avio is the prime contractor for the new Vega rocket, which was launched on 13 February from the Guiana Space Centre, in French Guiana.

The €710m Vega launcher is reported to be three times lighter than an equivalent rocket made with a steel shell.

Francesco De Pasquale, director of the Vega project at Avio, told The Engineer: ‘Using CFRP [carbon-fibre reinforced plastic] leads to a high strength-to-weight ratio.

‘Composites have a high stiffness, strength and toughness that is comparable to structural metal alloys,’ he said. ‘However, they usually provide these properties at a substantially reduced weight than the traditionally used metals.’

In the case of carbon fibre, the strength-to-weight ratio is nearly five times that of steel or aluminium said De Pasquale.

In addition, carbon fibre can be designed to be extra resistant in areas of the rocket that are subjected to the highest stress levels.

‘Composites can be made anisotropic,’ said De Pasquale. ‘This means they have different properties in different directions and this can be used to design a more efficient structure.

‘In many structures the stresses are also different in different directions. For instance, in closed-end pressure vessels — such as a rocket-motor case — the circumferential stresses are twice the axial stresses. Using composites allows such a vessel to be made twice as strong in the circumferential direction as in the axial.’

Vega, a 30m-high rocket weighing 137,000kg, is the first launcher that has been designed and developed in Italy and is part of a space programme jointly developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) and Italian Space Agency.

Vega’s launch capacity accommodates satellites from 300kg to 2,500kg into a wide variety of orbits. ESA said its reference mission is 1,500kg into a 700km-high circular Sun-synchronous orbit.

The single-bodied launcher is comprised of three main units and will reach speeds of up to 28,000km/h.

The ESA plans to use the Vega rocket on four follow-up missions as part of the Vega Research and Technology Accompaniment programme.