Avio, exempt from Italy’s coronavirus lockdown, seeks reopening of French Guiana spaceport

Space

WASHINGTON — The Italian government declared aerospace companies exempt from the nationwide lockdown aimed at halting the spread of the coronavirus, enabling Avio to continue production of rockets, Avio CEO Giulio Ranzo said Thursday. 

Since 60% of Avio’s revenue comes from manufacturing, the French government’s March 16 decision to suspend launches from the Guiana Space Center shouldn’t impact revenues as long as Europe’s South American spaceport reopens within two to three months, Ranzo said. 

Ranzo, in an earnings call, said that though launch activity stopped, fuel production and some manufacturing elements are continuing in French Guiana through companies Avio controls or co-owns there. 

Ranzo said he believes the French government, the French space agency CNES and European launch provider Arianespace share Avio’s sense of urgency to restart spaceport operations. 

“We all have the same shared interest to reopen this as soon as we can,” Ranzo said. “The point is that we need to put in place at the launch site the right safe practices to make that happen, and we are working on that.”

Arianespace launches the Avio-built Vega rocket from the Guiana Space Center. Its next mission, before the spaceport shut down, was the all-smallsat Vega Small Spacecraft Mission Service launch carrying 53 satellites. 

Prior to COVID-19 achieving pandemic status two weeks ago, Arianespace aimed to conduct 22 launches this year, including 14 from French Guiana. Vega and its larger replacement rocket, Vega C, account for four of those 14 planned launches. 

Ranzo said Avio implemented a series of safety procedures to continue working during the COVID-19 pandemic. Employee temperatures are measured, work areas are sanitized between shifts, and less than 50% of employees occupy the same floor space as a regular full-time shift, he said. 

More than 350 of Avio’s 1,000 employees are working remotely, Ranzo said, with more expected to switch to remote work in the coming weeks. 

Ranzo said that just as companies are learning how to operate with fewer people in-person, the Guiana Space Center could also learn how to conduct launches — which currently require around 200 people — with smaller numbers onsite. 

“What I imagine we will do is that now we will conduct launches in a very different way with as little amount of people as possible, and with a different protocol with respect to what we did in the past,” he said. 

Vega could be ready to launch 10 days after the spaceport reopens, Ranzo said. 

No guidance, but optimistic nonetheless

Avio’s 2019 revenue fell 5% to 368.7 million euros ($406.8 million) while profit rose 5% to 27 million euros, the company reported March 26. Ranzo said the numbers were largely in line with company expectations despite Vega suffering its first-ever failure in July. 

Avio did not issue financial guidance for 2020, saying the coronavirus pandemic has made forecasting futile for now.

Ranzo, however, said Avio remains confident about new business opportunities. 

The European Space Agency’s 2019 ministerial conference allocated 490 million euros toward Avio programs, according to a company presentation. 

Vega C, barring an extended spaceport shutdown, remains on track to launch in the second half of 2020, Ranzo said. That rocket is designed to lift around 2,300 kilograms to low Earth orbit, a roughly 50% increase over the current Vega rocket.

Avio is also making progress on a later variant planned for around 2025 called Vega E, which would replace Vega C’s third and fourth stages with a single liquid-oxygen and methane-powered rocket stage, increasing its lift capacity to 2,800 kilograms. A test-firing of that methane engine’s 3D-printed thrust chamber was completed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, the European Space Agency said March 3. 

Ranzo said Avio will soon need a new launcher production contract from Arianespace since the batch of 10 it is building — a mix of Vega and Vega C rockets — is almost entirely sold. Avio expects that future order will be around 10 rockets as well, he said. 

Avio is under contract to build strap-on solid rocket boosters for the first 14 flights of Ariane 6, the heavy-lift launcher ArianeGroup is building to replace Ariane 5. Ranzo expects Avio to receive the second tranche of that production order this year or next.

Avio also anticipates “a bunch of orders” in its fledgling tactical missile program, he said. The CAMM-ER surface-to-air missile, short for Common Anti-air Modular Missile Extended Range, for which Avio provides propulsion systems, completed its first flight last year, Ranzo said. 

Ranzo said Avio expects small satellites below 1,000 kilograms to be the fastest growing segment of the launch market between now and 2028. Avio plans to target the smallest end of that market with additional dedicated rideshares and a dedicated smallsat launcher called Vega C Light. 

In a December interview, Ranzo said work on Vega C Light would start after the introduction of Vega C, since Avio’s first focus is on finishing the larger rocket it started in 2014. Vega C Light would be largely the same as Vega C, but without the P120C first stage, optimizing the rocket for missions of up to 300 kilograms to low Earth orbit. 

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