WASHINGTON — Avio is moving ahead with efforts to develop a larger methane-fueled rocket engine and a prototype small launch vehicle with more than $300 million in funding from the Italian government.
Avio announced March 13 it formally signed contracts with the Italian government, working through the European Space Agency, for a combined 285.3 million euros ($308 million) for the two projects. The contracts, funded by Italy’s pandemic relief stimulus efforts, were first announced last summer.
One project, called HTE and awarded 103.7 million euros, will go towards development of an engine that uses liquid oxygen and methane propellants. It will be a larger version of the M10 engine that Axio is currently working on that will be used on the upper stage of the future Vega E rocket.
That M60 engine, with six times the thrust of the M10, will use technologies similar to those on SpaceX’s Raptor engine. “It’s challenging from a design and technology standpoint, but if it proves successful it delivers a much higher specific impulse, so it is much more efficient,” said Giulio Ranzo, chief executive of Avio, in an interview.
Avio is one of only two European companies actively working on methane-oxygen engines, alongside ArianeGroup and its Prometheus engine. While Prometheus is still in its design phase, the M10 engine has completed 24 ground tests with 1,300 seconds of run time, he said.
The other project. called STS, received 181.6 million euros in funding for development of a prototype small launch vehicle using methane-oxygen engines. “What we want to do with this is demonstrate that our liquid oxygen-methane technology flies well and performs as expected in microgravity conditions,” Ranzo said. It will also demonstrate composite cryogenic propellant tanks and software-driven avionics.
The vehicle is intended to be ready for a first launch in 2026. It will likely use a version of the M10 engine, he said, and carry a payload of about 200 kilograms to low Earth orbit. “The purpose is technology demonstration, not so much delivery to orbit,” he said, noting that a larger prototype would be more expensive to develop.
Ranzo said that Avio would consider developing a commercial version of that vehicle with a larger capacity. “It’s a difficult market segment,” he said of the small launch vehicle or “microlauncher” industry. The Vega C, which can place about two metric tons into orbit, is in what he called a “sweet spot” of the market, launching government and commercial Earth observational satellites. “We will size the product to make sure that we can address this market well.”
While that future vehicle may not compete head-to-head with smaller microlaunchers, he noted that Avio had one advantage over them, in that the money provided by the Italian government fully funds development of both the new engine and the prototype rocket. “We think we are in a pretty good position for success,” he said. That funding “is way more than what any other European company has so far gathered for similar purposes.”
Returning Vega C to flight
Ranzo said that Avio is working to implement the findings of an independent review into the December 2022 Vega C launch failure. That investigation concluded March 3 that a piece of the nozzle of the rocket’s Zefiro-40 second stage motor, called a throat insert, eroded more than expected, causing a loss of thrust.
That work includes preparations for a static-fire test of a Zefiro-40 with a new throat insert scheduled for late May or early June. He said Avio is currently testing the new carbon-carbon throat insert material, produced by ArianeGroup, to ensure it has the proper performance. If those tests are successful, Vega C could return to flight by the end of the year carrying the Sentinel-1C radar imaging satellite for the ESA/European Commission Copernicus program.
Ranzo said that Avio will start stacking an original Vega vehicle on the launch pad in French Guiana by the end of June for a launch in late July or August. Arianespace has yet to disclose the customers for the launch other than saying at a March 3 briefing that it will carry two primary payloads and several smaller rideshares.
He said he remained confident in Vega despite last year’s Vega C failure as well as two earlier failures of the Vega. “The reality is that the Vega C, while it retains the same name as the Vega, is a completely different rocket,” he said. A failure on an early launch of the Vega C, he argued, is “somewhat within normal” expectations for new vehicles.
Demand for the Vega C remains strong, including a contract announced March 14 for up to three launches of an Italian constellation of imaging satellites that, like the work Avio is doing on methane engines and a prototype small launcher, is backed by the country’s pandemic stimulus fund.
The current backlog fills the Vega manifest through 2027 at the vehicle’s anticipated flight rate, he said. “Now we’re really focusing on execution to make sure we deliver on these commitments.”