ESA Declares Ariane 6 Full Duration Hot Fire Test A Success

ESA Declares Ariane 6 Full Duration Hot Fire Test A Success

Europe’s new Ariane 6 rocket appeared to take another step forward today. ESA declared the full duration firing of the core stage engine a success. European officials have been waiting for the results of this test before announcing when this new version of the Ariane rocket will leave the launch pad for the first time. Europe is in the midst of a launch vehicle crisis, attempting to regain independent access to space.

The countdown for today’s 470-second test of the Vulcain 2.1 engine at Europe’s launch site in Kourou, French Guiana, started quite well. They even were 30 minutes ahead of schedule at one point, but as the clock ticked down it stopped at 2 minutes and 42 seconds.

Ariane 6 hot fire test halted at 0:02:42 seconds before engine ignition. Screengrab from ESA TV.

The European Space Agency (ESA) manages and funds the Ariane 6 development program. Thirteen of ESA’s 22 member states participate in the Ariane program: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.

ESA livestreamed the test and commentator Tony Dos Santos, ESA’s Ariane 6 ground system operations manager at the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, waited along with everyone else to find out why. After about 30 minutes, the countdown resumed. ESA (@ESA_transport) posted on X that the delay was due to a “small anomaly in the transient threshold pressure, which was slightly different from our predictions.”

The countdown resumed and once the engine started firing, all appeared to go well.

Some space reporters watching the livestream posted on X that they detected a change in engine output about 7 minutes into the almost 8-minute test and wondered if it reached full duration.

ESA declared it a success, but referred to it as a “seven-minute full firing.” The test was intended to last 7 minutes and 50 seconds (470 seconds).

ESA’s new Ariane 6 rocket passed a major full-scale rehearsal today in preparation for its first flight, when teams on the ground went through a complete launch countdown followed by a seven-minute full firing of the core stage’s engine, as it would fire on a launch into space. — ESA press release, November 23, 2023

The test was not only of the engine, but the launch pad and all the connections between them. ArianeGroup is the prime contractor for the rocket and the French space agency CNES operates the launch site and is in charge of the pad. They along with ESA will be parsing the data and hopefully will clarify exactly how long it lasted, but ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher clearly is pleased already.

Ariane 6 is the successor to Ariane 5 and was supposed to be ready by 2020, but ESA conceded earlier this year it would not be until 2024.

That leaves Europe with a gap in access to space for big payloads. The last of the Ariane 5 series launched in July.

Not only that, but Europe no longer can use Russian medium-class Soyuz rockets. The European-Russian agreement to launch Soyuz from Kourou dissolved after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

To top it off, Europe’s new small rocket, Vega-C, failed on its second launch in December 2022. While fixes were underway this summer it experienced another setback when a redesigned second stage engine, Zefiro 40, with a new carbon-carbon material for the nozzle throat, failed during a static fire test at Avio, the engine manufacturer.

ESA had to purchase three launches from SpaceX for spacecraft that couldn’t wait for Ariane 6 or Vega-C: Euclid, Hera, and EarthCARE. The European Union, which is in charge of Europe’s positioning and navigation satellite system Galileo and the Copernicus earth observation satellite system, is finalizing arrangements with SpaceX for two launches to put four Galileo satellites in orbit in April and July 2024 at a cost of €180 million ($196 million).

ESA and EU officials refer to the situation as a “crisis” for Europe’s independent access to space. Today’s test was a crucial step towards its resolution.

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