Vega prototype engine on test

Researchers at the European Space Agency have successfully completed the inert casting of the main motor of the Vega satellite launcher.

The trial, an important step in the development of Europe’s small satellite launcher, was held at the Guiana Propellant Plant at Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana.

Vega is planned for launch in 2006, when it will complement the existing Ariane 5 and Soyuz satellite launchers. It will be used to place 300-2,000kg satellites into the polar and low-Earth orbits used for many scientific and Earth observation missions.

The casting, which began in April, entailed ‘cooking’ the motor – called P80 – for 10 days in a pit, then allowing it to cool before extracting the mandrel to leave behind a perfect cast. This is now being tested to enable the ESA team to see how well it has been made and to check for defects.

The success of these tests will mean the first casting of the P80 can take place on schedule next year, in preparation for its first firing tests at the test bench facilities in French Guiana.

Seven ESA member states, led by Italy, are involved in the Vega programme. The objective is to build a small single-body launcher with three solid propulsion stages and an upper stage powered by liquid propulsion, for use in attitude and orbit control, and satellite release.

Advanced, low-cost technologies are being used to keep costs to a minimum. The trial involved the casting of a non-explosive mixture with the same density and characteristics as the solid propellant that the first-stage engine will use.

Vega, which is 30m tall and has a diameter of 3m, can place a 1.5 tonne payload into polar orbit, it is claimed. At lift-off the P80 first-stage motor will provide Vega with 300 tonnes of thrust for 106.7 seconds.