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Ariane 6 Conducts Inaugural Flight

Ariane 6 lifts off from ELA-4 in Kourou, French Guiana. The vehicle is configured in the 62 profile, with two solid rocket motors.
Credit: ESA

On July 9, 2024 at 3:00 PM EST, the inaugural launch of Ariane 6 took place, carrying with it the promise of renewed access to space for Europe. Rising from pad ELA-4 in the dense jungles of French Guiana, Ariane 6 completed a flawless orbital insertion after nominal performance from its Vulcain main engine, P120C boosters and Vinci upper stage. Over 10 years in the making, this launch represents Europe’s first steps back towards a competitive launch environment, one Europe hopes to remain a leader in. 

Several payloads are notable onboard the inaugural flight of Ariane 6, including two entry demonstrators from European space startups. Alongside a number of cubesats seeking to perform Earth monitoring, additive assembly and space physics experiments, the Exploration Company launched their Nyx Bikini spacecraft, an entry demonstrator which sought to validate technologies for their future cargo and crew spacecraft. These partnerships between older players like Arianespace and newcomers like the Exploration Company indicate a healthy return to form for the continent, which seeks to hold their ground against encroaching American technology firms. Alongside Nyx Bikini, Arianegroup planned to demonstrate their own entry technology with SpaceCase SC-X01, which aimed to validate reentry technologies for future spacecraft. 

Ariane 6’s upper stage is seen coasting in space, before it ran into difficulties with its APU.
Credit: ESA

The flight of the upper stage proceeded nominally through the first three in space burns, enabling separation of the numerous international cubesats onboard. However, due to issues with the Auxiliary Power Unit, upper stage was not deorbited, with the two reentry payloads remaining attached to the vehicle. As a result, these payloads will not be able to demonstrate their entry capabilities. It is not immediately clear what caused this issue; Martin Sion, CEO of Arianegroup, highlighted that the upper stage was successfully passivated, the process of dumping propellant overboard to prevent an explosion. He went on to stress that this failure to restart would not delay future launches, rather, this was operational data which would help to better characterize the behavior of the upper stage. With the upper stage now passivated, it remains inert space debris, and will likely deorbit within the next few months. Despite these difficulties, the launch was heralded as a success.

In an increasingly challenging launch market, Ariane 6 seeks to provide reliable and cost effective launches with mission flexibility, a key factor for space access. Unlike Ariane 5, Ariane 6’s core stage is reconfigurable with either two or four P120C solid rocket boosters to meet medium and heavy lift needs. Ariane 6 also features a new hydrolox upper stage engine, Vinci, that has the ability to re-ignite four times in space. This multiple ignition capability is a substantial improvement over Ariane 5’s Snecma built H7MB, which had limited relights. This will provide Ariane 6 the ability to deliver multiple payloads for multiple customers in different orbits on the same flight, a capability which ArianeSpace and ESA hope will attract customers for future flights.

Ariane 6 punches through the humid jungle air as it leaves Kourou, carrying a variety of payloads and demonstrations for international customers.
Credit: ESA

Tuesday’s launch represents a critical step back into an ever growing and changing launch market, one that has seen the rapid rise of reusable vehicles such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9. The COVID-19 pandemic, war in Ukraine and various other geopolitical factors have resulted in an uncomfortable situation for Arianespace. With ESA’s former partner Russia invading Ukraine in 2022, access to the medium lift Soyuz vehicle and heavy lift Proton vehicle was cut off by sanctions, forcing Europe to utilize only domestic products. Schedule delays and budgetary shortfalls further delayed the rocket’s introduction, resulting in a yearlong capability gap for the continent. Following the final flight of Ariane 5, which flew from 1996 to 2023, Europe has been dependent on other launch providers like SpaceX for access to space. The arrival of Ariane 6, much like the original Ariane 1 in 1979, seeks to put an end to this reliance on foreign rockets, something that nations like Japan have avoided.  

During the development of Ariane 6, multi-year delays and cost overruns became a point of contention. Leadership from Arianespace, CNES, DLR and other partner agencies, despite this criticism, reassured the public that Ariane 6 would be delivered within 2024 – with the intention of flying at least 2 times before the year was out. However, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher stated that the continent found itself in the midst of “an acute launcher crisis” because of the “unavailability of home-grown rockets.” The lack of domestic options, combined with geopolitical instability, have backed Europe into an unfortunate corner for the last year. On June 28, just days before the scheduled first flight of Ariane 6, the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT) announced that it will be moving an upcoming weather satellite from Ariane 6’s third flight scheduled for 2025 to instead launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9. EUMETSAT has not been the only customer to express concerns about Ariane 6 availability, with the European Commission also selecting SpaceX to launch two pairs of Galileo navigation satellites.

However, the mood after launch was positively jovial, with intense emotions on display in the Jupiter control room in French Guiana. During the webcast, thunderous applause and emotional cries could be heard from both commentators and the launch support team, a testament to the blood, sweat and tears poured into this launch vehicle. Despite the issues with APU, the executive teams of Arianespace, CNES, ArianeGroup and more remained confident and excited about the launch and the upcoming launch of CSO-3 for the French military. Josef Aschbacher, speaking after launch, expressed his thanks to every member of the team – stating that “everyone here made history.” Martin Sion, put it simply: “Ariane is back… And today, with this new launcher, Europe is restoring its autonomous access to space. We all know how important this is for all of us… I have a sense of pride for all the teams that have been working on this program.” Stéphan Israël, CEO of Arianespace, expressed his gratitude for all of the member states supporting the launch vehicle’s development program, highlighting that none of this would be possible without continuous support from every nation involved.

As Ariane 6’s inaugural mission draws to a slightly premature close, the future for European access to space begins to look a little brighter. Old and new technologies have joined forces to push Europe towards a future of true European autonomy in space. No longer constrained by launcher unavailability, the continent can begin to push forward and regain their foothold in a competitive market.

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