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Ariane 6 Ready for Debut Flight

Ariane 6 stands on the pad at Kourou, French Guiana in the 62 configuration for its maiden flight.
Credit: Arianespace

Ariane 6, the European Space Agency and Arianespace’s next-generation rocket, is ready to perform its maiden flight on July 9, 2024. This launch builds upon a storied 45 year chapter of European history and once again granting fully autonomous European access to space—the culmination of nearly 10 years of development with coordination of 13 different countries, led by French aerospace company ArianeGroup.

There is much riding on this inaugural launch—not just the scientific payloads aboard the rocket but also Europe’s high hopes of autonomous and competitive access to space. 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. This, coupled with strained geopolitical tensions with former launch provider Russia has ultimately put Europe in an uncomfortable situation, relying heavily on foreign lifting capability. 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 recently avoided.

The main difference between Ariane 6 and its predecessor, boasts ArianeGroup, is flexibility. In an increasingly competitive launch market, Ariane 6 seeks to provide reliable, and cost effective launches with mission flexibility. With the ability to launch Ariane 6 with either two or four powerful solid rocket boosters, the company will be able to place both heavy and light payloads into a range of different orbits. The rocket will also feature a new hydrolox upper stage engine, Vinci, that has the ability to ignite and re-ignite four times in space. This will provide Ariane 6 the ability to deliver multiple payloads for multiple customers in different orbits on the same flight.

An artists render of Ariane 6’s solid rocket motors separating, leaving the core Vulcain main engine to power the core stage towards orbit.
Credit: Arianespace

The European Space Agency has high hopes for Ariane 6, but as with any new rocket, high hopes also bring high anxieties. Beginning in 2014 with an original target launch set for 2020, Ariane 6’s development has been fraught with setbacks, production delays, and funding issues.

Despite the rocket finally completing its journey to the launch pad, uncertainty about it still haunts ArianeGroup and its new rocket. In addition to the years long delays, Ariane 6’s development is mired in concepts and technologies that hark back to the beginning of its development, not towards the future. Namely, many organizations view the future of making spaceflight affordable through one facet of their design: reusability. It’s something that SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has already mastered with a total of 282 flights of previously flown rockets (at the time of writing) and is being explored by other vehicles—SpaceX’s Starship, Blue Origin’s New Glenn, United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur, and Rocket Lab’s Neutron are seeking to make their new rockets fully or partially reusable. Despite targeting an eventual capability of one launch per month, Arianespace’s CEO Stéphane Israël has stated that the company has no plans to begin implementing reusable vehicle technology until the 2030’s. Several subsidiary projects and technology development programs, however, have made progress in recent years – such as MaiaSpace and the new Prometheus liquid methane-oxygen rocket engine; all of which play a key role in keeping up with the rest of the rapidly changing launch market.

Many in and around the development of Ariane 6 fear that its multi-year development delays will render it obsolete or out-competed shortly after hitting the market, and those fears are beginning to present themselves. 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. This move came as a surprise to European launch officials, and has sent a message of the lack of trust in Ariane 6’s ability for reliable and on-time launch. EUMETSAT isn’t the only one who may have such concerns, with the European Commission also selecting SpaceX to launch two pairs of Galileo navigation satellites due to schedule delays with Ariane 6.

The upcoming flight of Ariane 6 stands to be more than just the launch of a single rocket, but the culmination of a decade of cooperation and coordination between nations in the quest to expand access to the cosmos for the combined benefit of Earth. Once the king of commercial lifting, Ariane 6 now looks to maintain a grip on the throne, with the hopes of ensured access to space for Europe and customers beyond.

Edited by Nik Alexander

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