Ariane 6 Slips to Late 2023, At Best

Ariane 6 Slips to Late 2023, At Best

The European Space Agency announced another delay for the inaugural launch of Ariane 6 today. The new estimate is the last quarter of 2023, but officials stressed the date is contingent on meeting several milestones early next year. Only three Ariane 5 rockets remain. ESA planned to rely on Russia’s Soyuz rocket as a backup, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine upended that partnership. ESA’s small launcher Vega-C will be the only operational rocket in Europe’s fleet in the interim.

Europe’s space plans changed dramatically with the invasion of Ukraine. ESA quickly pivoted from a close partnership with Russia on launch vehicles and planetary exploration to declaring the need for independence.

Today’s announcement at a press conference with officials from ESA, Arianespace, ArianeGroup and CNES reinforced that theme.

“What’s at stake here is … European independent access to space,” ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher exclaimed as he laid out the new schedule. Next month he will be asking ESA’s 22 member states for an almost 25 percent budget increase over the next three years to achieve that independence not only in launchers, but other programs.

The Ariane 6 launch pad at Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana hosts for the first time a fully assembled example of ESA’s new heavy-lift rocket, following the addition of an upper composite to the core stage and four boosters already in place. The upper composite – consisting of two half-fairings and a payload mock-up with the structural adapter needed to join it to the core stage – made the 10 kilometer trip from the encapsulation building to launch pad on 12 October. Credit: ESA

ESA funds the development of new rockets and owns the launch infrastructure at the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, on the northeast coast of South America. The center is operated by the French space agency CNES. ArianeGroup, a joint venture of Airbus and Safran, is the prime contractor for design and production of Ariane 5 and Ariane 6. Italy’s Avio is the prime contractor for Vega and the new Vega-C.

Arianespace, a French-based company, markets and launches the Ariane and Vega rockets. Beginning in 1996, it had a joint company, Starsem, with Russian organizations for launches of Russia’s Soyuz-ST rocket from Kourou. Two days after its invasion of Ukraine, Russia suspended that agreement in retaliation for sanctions imposed by the European Union and a week later Arianespace followed suit.

Originally Ariane 6 was to enter service in 2020, but the date has successively slipped. Officials at the press conference today sidestepped questions about what led to this most recent delay. ESA Director of Launch Operations Daniel Neuenschwander pointed to design changes and impacts of COVID, but most of those were known previously.

Aschbacher made clear even this date is far from certain.

Those milestones are successful completion of hot fire tests of the Ariane 6 upper stage engine, Vinci; the start of the combined test campaign with the firing of the Ariane 6 core stage with its Vulcain 2.1 engine on the launch pad at Kourou to validate the interfaces between the rocket and the launch pad’s systems; and the start of the launch system qualification review by the first quarter of 2023.

Delays in the development of new rockets are common, but in this case Europe’s workhorse Ariane 5 rocket has run its course. Only three more Ariane 5 rockets will be launched, one at the end of this year and two next year. That’s all there are. Building more Ariane 5s is not possible.  Europe’s backup plan if Ariane 6 slipped was to use Soyuz.

As Arianespace CEO Stéphane Israël said today, “Soyuz was supposed to be the backup for Ariane 6, not Ariane 5.”

The last Ariane 5 is expected to launch in the first half of 2023, so the only operational European rocket until Ariane 6 debuts is Vega-C. Its first launch was in July. Neuenschwander said technical data from that launch is “very good” and ESA is ready to turn the rocket over to Arianespace, with four launches scheduled for next year, but it has much less capacity to launch payloads into orbit than Ariane.

All were upbeat about Europe’s launch prospects, however. Israël pointed out that 29 Ariane 6s are on order already, “a very strong order book for a launcher that has not flown yet.”

Next month, ESA will be asking its governing body, the relevant government ministers from its 22 member countries, to approve upgrades to both Ariane 6 and Vega-C.  A Block II Ariane 6 with 20 percent greater launch capacity is planned along with Vega-E, also with 20 percent more launch capacity as well as a 20 percent cost reduction. ESA furthermore wants to invest in reusable first and second stages. Neuenschwander said it “will show we are technically able to do this in Europe.” He added that ESA is working towards developing the capability to launch humans into space “to prepare for an informed decision in 2023.”

In addition to those longer-term future plans, ESA will be seeking 600 million Euros for an Ariane 6 “transition program” on top of the approximately 4 billion Euros already spent on the rocket. The transition program covers “the learning curve for industry” and “the cadence effect” due to the delay, according to Neuenschwander. He said some ESA members have already committed to two-thirds of that, but the final third must be approved by the Ministerial Council.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.