Ariane 6 One Step Closer, But Still No Launch Date

Ariane 6 One Step Closer, But Still No Launch Date

Europe’s new Ariane 6 rocket is one step closer to launch today following a successful, if brief, engine test. A longer test is scheduled next month. Only then will European officials be ready to say when the inaugural launch will take place. For now, they will not even commit to the first half of 2024.

A 4-second test firing of the core stage’s Vulcain 2.1 engine finally took place yesterday at the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana on the northeast coast of South America.

Originally planned for July 19, it slipped to August 29 and then again to yesterday. That was the charm.

Announcing the successful test this morning, ESA emphasized the rocket used for this test “is not intended for flight.” Flight models are still being manufactured in France (core stage) and Germany (upper stage) and the solid rocket boosters are being assembled in Kourou.

Ariane 6 is the successor to Ariane 5 and was supposed to be ready by 2020. As usually happens with new rockets, or new technology in general, it encountered a series of delays. ESA, which is in charge of Ariane 6 development, conceded recently it will not be until 2024.

That leaves Europe with a gap in access to space for heavy payloads. All the Ariane 5s have been launched already.  Not only that, but Europe no longer can use Russian medium-class Soyuz rockets. The European-Russian agreement to launch Soyuz from Europe’s launch site in French Guiana dissolved after Russian invaded Ukraine. To top it off, Europe’s new small rocket, Vega-C, failed on its second launch in December 2022. The last of the original version of Vega will lift off next month. At that point Europe will be completely without independent access to space.

ESA already has had to buy three launches from SpaceX for satellites that couldn’t wait.

ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher and officials from other key stakeholders briefed the press on Monday, a date selected long before the 4-second test was once again postponed. Ariane Group is the prime contractor, Arianespace is in charge of launch services, and France’s space agency CNES operates the Guiana Space Centre and is responsible for the launch pads and their connections to the rocket.

L-R: Toni Tolker-Nielsen, Director of Space Transportation, ESA; Stéphane Israël, CEO, Arianespace; Philippe Baptiste, President, CNES; Josef Aschbacher, Director General, ESA; Martin Sion, CEO, Ariane Group; Philippe Willekens, Head of Communication Department, ESA; Carrine Leveau, Director of Space Transporation, CNES. Screengrab, September 4, 2023.

Their key message was they are not ready to say when Ariane 6 will fly. Aschbacher declined to say even if it would be in the first half of 2024 as they were waiting for the results not only from yesterday’s 4-second test, but the full-duration test on October 3. The core stage engine will fire for 470 seconds, almost 8 minutes, as it would in normal operations.

“We will define the launch period after the tests have been conducted. You asked if everything goes fine could we meet the date before the end of June [2024]. There is a lot of uncertainties built along the way. Please allow me not to speculate at this point in time. We do promise to give you a period of time in about a month’s time. Let me reassure you that we have stabilized the schedule, the tests are looking really good so far. Of course there are still very critical ones ahead. I think that the chances are if everything goes perfect, things are pretty good that it’s not too late in the next year, but there are still a lot of unknowns ahead of us.” — Josef Aschbacher

A test fire of Ariane 6’s upper stage at the German Aerospace Center’s facility in Lampoldshausen on September 1 was a success. The reignitable Vinci engine and its Auxiliary Power Unit were fired in tandem to validate how they operate together.

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