Ariane 6 Lifts Off, But Second Stage Anomaly Spoils the Day

Ariane 6 Lifts Off, But Second Stage Anomaly Spoils the Day

Europe’s new Ariane 6 rocket lifted off this afternoon for the first time. Four years late and a year after the final Ariane 5 took flight, European space officials initially were gleeful after it achieved orbit. ESA’s Director General called it a “historic day for Europe,” the president of France’s space agency declared “Europe is back in space,” and the head of ArianeGroup echoed “Ariane is back.” Later, however, an anomaly with the second stage spoiled the celebration and prevented it from reentering into the Pacific Ocean as planned. The stage remains in orbit.

Liftoff from Europe’s space launch site in Kourou, French Guiana was at 3:00 pm EDT (4:00 pm local time), an hour into the four-hour launch window. Despite rain earlier in the day, the weather cooperated this afternoon.

At first, every milestone was met as the rocket’s two side boosters detached, the first and second stages separated, the second stage Vinci engine fired, shut down, and fired again.

Source: Ariane 6 media kit.

As a test flight, only a few payloads were aboard. Several cubesats, including one for NASA, were deployed as scheduled.

Source: Ariane 6 media kit.

The importance of this mission for Europe cannot be overstated. New launch vehicles almost always take much longer to develop than expected, but in this case Ariane 6 took so long that Europe lost its cherished independent access to space.  The final Ariane 5 launch was almost exactly one year ago and Europe’s smaller Vega C failed in December 2022 and still hasn’t returned to flight. ESA and the European Union have had to buy launches from a foreign supplier — SpaceX. ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher has been calling the European launcher situation a “crisis.”

The Ariane 6 team includes ESA, the French space agency CNES, and ArianeGroup and its subsidiary Arianespace.  ESA funds development and owns the launch infrastructure at the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou. CNES operates the Centre. ArianeGroup, a joint venture of Airbus and Safran, is Ariane’s prime contractor and Arianespace markets and operates Ariane. Thirteen of ESA’s 22 members participate in the Ariane 6 program. France is the largest single contributor, providing 55.6 percent of the funds. Germany is second at 20.8 percent.

ESA’s Aschbacher, CNES president Philippe Baptiste, ArianeGroup CEO Martin Sion, and Arianespace CEO Stéphane Israël could hardly contain their joy as they shared their reaction for the cameras after the cubesats were deployed, about two-thirds of the way through the mission.

Their excitement turned out to be premature.

The Vinci engine, a hallmark of this new version of Ariane, uses an Auxiliary Propulsion Unit or APU to repressurize the tanks, allowing the engine to fire as many as four times. It was supposed to ignite three times on this flight.

Although it did relight a second time, it quickly shut down due to a yet-to-be-determined problem.

The engine was supposed to reignite a third time to deorbit the second stage into the Pacific Ocean to avoid cluttering Earth orbit. Two small capsules were to be released to test reentry technologies.

A graphic from ESA’s live broadcast shows the path the second stage was supposed to follow in green, with it falling back to Earth, and its actual path in yellow. Without the APU, ESA’s on-air commentators said further re-ignitions are not possible. The second stage remains in a stable orbit with the two capsules.

As a post-launch news conference, all of the officials downplayed the second stage failure insisting the objective today was launch and that went perfectly.

Continuing to herald that Europe is back in space, Israël confidently asserted that the next Ariane 6 launch will be in December for France’s Ministry of Defense.  Two launches of Europe’s smaller rockets, Vega and Vega-C, are planned before that. The final Vega launch is scheduled for September. Vega-C is Vega’s successor, but failed during on its second launch in December 2022 and suffered other problems thereater. Vega-C’s return to flight is expected in November.


This article has been updated.

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