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ESA Ministerial Council: a historic leap forwards for space activities

The VEGA launcher comes of age

02 December 2014

The European Space Agency's ministerial conference of member states closed today: the Italian delegation was led by Minister of Education, Universities and Research, Stefania Giannini, and President of the Italian Space Agency, Roberto Battiston. 

The Council passed a historic resolution approving a multi-year development program for a new generation of European launchers (Ariane 6 and VEGA-C). This decision will mean that Europe will continue to have independent access to space for institutional launches along with a more competitive launcher that will earn an important share of the commercial market. Moreover, an overhaul of the industrial organisation will allow for a more efficient management of the launchers program and considerable savings for ESA member states.

Minister for Education, Universities and Research, Stefania Giannini, commented that “The ESA Ministerial Council was a complete success for Europe and for Italy, setting out the future of European space activities. Italy has confirmed our role as a mediator between the main players in the space sector. This is an important result that will bring considerable economic and industrial benefits in terms of jobs, knowledge and technology.

Space research continues to be a key factor for facing the challenges of globalisation and a fundamental element for supporting European economic growth. It is important to emphasise the decision on the new generation of launchers, Ariane 6 and VEGA-C, which will ensure our continent remains independent in this sector. Both launchers will have a single engine, produced in Italy: this will bring more than ten years of high-tech manufacturing work to our country's industrial sector”.  

The new program will bring important advantages for Italy, thanks to a strong synergy between Ariane 6 and VEGA-C, an Italian-led program focussing on the P120C engines will which will used for both the Ariane and Vega rockets. The VEGA-C will therefore become a fundamental component of the new family of launchers, a role also acknowledged by Germany in a decision to invest further in the program following their initial commitment in Naples, 2012. This is a particularly important result for Italy, guaranteeing decades of industrial development, protecting qualified jobs and further promoting the growth of our technological skills.  

ASI President Roberto Battiston commented that “Vega has come of age. The 2014 ESA Ministerial Council discussed a strategic program for new European launchers, and in this context, Italy's Vega provides a central focus for the entire family of Ariane and Vega launchers, thanks to the solid P120 engine developed by Avio at Colleferro, building on the experience with the P80. This is a fundamental step in guaranteeing European access to space in a competitive way that fits in with the rapidly changing global evolution. We have seen ESA working to represent the Europe that we want and to maintain all the potential of the old continent on the new frontier of technology. The development of the launchers was one of the three issues that member states found a strategic agreement over today, in addition to the continuation of the International Space Station up until 2017 and possibly up to 2020, and the funding of the 2018 mission in the ExoMars program. This is an element which will guarantee the development of instruments without delaying the plans for the European mission to Mars, an Italian-led program”.  

Italy's second important achievement was regarding the ExoMars exploration of Mars, which is the natural continuation of exploration following on from the Rosetta program. Today's signatures, in particular from the UK, with whom we shared a high level of goals and responsibilities, saw the program achieve the threshold necessary to continue. France, Spain and Germany also made important commitments.  

Another important Italian commitment was regarding the continuation of activities on the International Space Station (ISS). In fact, Italy decided to increase our contribution due to the importance of supporting the International Space Station as a unique infrastructure for research activities, to be conducted in particular by Italian astronauts. Right now, Italian ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti is on board the ISS to perform important Italian scientific experiments thanks to a bilateral agreement between ASI and NASA.  

Italy also signed off on the second phase of period 3 of the Copernicus space component program, guaranteeing our country's participation in the Sentinel 5 and Jason CS missions and the research for the future generation of Copernicus.  

The signature by some important countries (France, Spain, UK and Sweden) of the PRIDE Program to develop technology for automatic space vehicles capable of re-entry to Earth was another significant step for Italy. This program, which Italy was pushing strongly for, will carry on from the work done on the IXV project led by Italy and due to be launched with Vega in February 2015. 

From a political point of view, three important Resolutions were passed:  

- Resolution on access to space

Equipping Europe with a new family of next generation launchers that will be more reliable and competitive on the market, for institutional and commercial launches. The countries participating in the launchers program identified the construction of Ariane 6 (first launch planned for 2020) and Vega-C (first launch in 2018) launchers as the goals for the next decade.  

- Resolution on Europe's space exploration strategy

Highlighting the scientific, technological and strategic value of exploration activities for Europe and identifying three key destinations for future programs: Exploration in low orbits, including the ISS; the Moon; Mars.  

- Resolution on ESA evolution

Recognising the European Union as a privileged partner, but repeating the interest of member states in keeping an independent space agency, operating within the current Framework Agreement and promoting activities in the space sector, guaranteeing considerable economic and social benefits for European citizens and running internationally important programs and missions with top level scientific goals. The resolution also looked to promote international cooperation with countries outside the European Union, both to maximise scientific and technological partnerships on a global level and as a strategic and political tool.