December 2, 2014

Building a range of launchers

Since the 1970s, launcher missions have continued to evolve and diversify. Today, launchers are expected to deliver ever more performance and transport increasingly heavy payloads.

Anticipating developments in the launcher market

This upward trend is due to new multimedia and mobile telecommunications applications for satellites. However, small satellites are also being developed, particularly for Earth-observation missions.

Ariane 5 ECA on its launch pad. Credits: CNES/ESA/Arianespace/CSG Service optique

Another new development is the increasing number of orbital positions for satellites.
Demand for launches into low-Earth orbit remains strong, while the number of geostationary satellites requiring greater lift capacity—and therefore thrust—is increasing.
New missions, such as positioning constellations of satellites requiring complex orbital manoeuvres, are also emerging.

Soyuz and Vega round out Europe’s offering

In 1992, Europe began to look at developing a smaller launcher designed to orbit small satellites.

The Vega programme sought to meet growing demand for the launch of small payloads, ranging from 300 kg to 2 tonnes, notably for scientific missions and Earth-observation programmes. The new European launcher made its maiden flight on 13 February 2012.


The European Vega launcher. Credits: ESA/J.Huart

In a parallel move, the ESA Council gave the go-ahead in February 2004 to operate the Russian Soyuz launcher from the Guiana Space Centre, where it made its maiden flight on 21 October 2011.

The Soyuz in Guiana programme is a unique opportunity for Europe to round out its range of launch services by adding a medium-lift launcher with a proven track record.

Soyuz launcher on his launch pad. Credits: ESA/CNES/D. Ducros.