After repeated delays, the European Ariane 6 rocket has completed a crucial hotfire test of its Vulcain 2.1 engine, one of the final key steps in preparing the vehicle for its maiden launch in the coming year. This test brings Europe one step closer to reinstating domestic launch capability, and hopefully cementing themselves back on the leaderboard in the launch market.
The start of the November 23rd test was delayed by nearly 45 minutes when the countdown was stopped at 2 minutes and 42 seconds. ESA announced the reason for the hold as “a small anomaly in the transient threshold pressure.” The Vulcain 2.1 engine in the core stage of the Ariane 6 test model ignited at about 3:44 p.m. Eastern on the launch pad at ELA-4, Kourou, French Guiana. The vehicle, with a pathfinder core stage and placeholder solid rocket motors, simulated the conditions the pad and local environment would see during launch operations.
The test firing was scheduled to last 470 seconds, mimicking a full burn of the core stage on an actual launch. Controllers called for shutdown at the expected time, although the performance of the engine, according to some, appeared to change in the final minute of the burn – it is not clear if this was intended.
Josef Aschbacher, the Director General of the European Space Agency, and other ESA officials said this full-duration static-fire test was one of the last tests before the agency would announce any opportunities for the first Ariane 6 launch. “Depending on the outcome of this test, afterwards I will be in a position to announce a launch date for Ariane 6 for the inaugural flight,” he said on Nov. 6, during a press briefing after a session of the European Space Summit in Seville, Spain. All that remains on the test schedule is one final hotfire test of the Ariane 6 upper stage and its Vinci engine, examining its performance in a variety of conditions. That test, at an Arianespace facility in Germany, is scheduled for December. The first launch on the books, a rideshare mission with multiple demonstrator payloads, is scheduled to be an Ariane 62, with two solid rocket motors sometime in 2024.
Ariane 6’s delays have been a major point of contention within European spaceflight politics, with access to space being extremely limited since the retirement of Ariane 5 in July of 2023. This, coupled with the 2022 invasion of Ukraine cutting off access to the Russian built Soyuz, and the domestically produced Vega’s poor service record, have backed Europe into an unfortunate corner – relying on purchasing launch vehicles from other nations instead of fielding their own vehicles. The Ariane 6 program has also faced scrutiny about noncompetitive cost, and the politically unpopular nature of government subsidies – something that ArianeGroup has requested more of in the lead up to Ariane 6’s maiden launch.
Europe’s position is a difficult one, with multiple launch vehicles being taken out of commission at the same time due to quality control and political instability. Ariane 6 was meant to have a transition into operation, working in tandem with Ariane 5 as the market went through a cyclical launch demand period. Now, with Ariane 5’s production lines being switched over to Ariane 6, all that Europe can do is wait – and hope that Ariane 6 passes its final checks with flying colors.