ESA Targets Summer 2024 Launch for First Ariane 6

ESA Targets Summer 2024 Launch for First Ariane 6

The European Space Agency announced today they are targeting June 15-July 31, 2024 for the first launch of Ariane 6 following a successful engine test last week. Europe is in a launch vehicle quandary right now with virtually no independent access to space after decades of relying on their own rockets. Ariane 6 is years late, but now months closer to first flight.

At a press briefing this morning in Paris, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher cheered the successful November 23 full duration “hot fire” test of the Ariane 6 core stage engine.

ESA manages and funds the Ariane 6 development program. ArianeGroup is the prime contractor and its Arianespace unit markets and operates the vehicle. The French space agency, CNES, operates the Guiana Space Centre launch site in Kourou, French Guiana.

Before the test, they said “full duration” was 470 seconds, but the test actually ended after 426 seconds.  ESA Director of Space Transportation Toni Tolker-Nielsen explained today that all of the objectives were met nonetheless. The engine cutoff was earlier than planned because conservative sensor parameters were set 50 seconds before the test began to protect the launch pad. One of the sensors triggered the cutoff “but it didn’t change the success of the test” and “would not have been a problem during flight” if this was an actual launch.

ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher at an Ariane 6 briefing, November 30, 2023. Screengrab.

A few more tests are required before the launch next summer. Martin Sion, CEO of ArianeGroup, said one will take place next week and another on December 15. The projected launch window of June 15-July 31 is dependent on those tests going well. Aschbacher said they will be able to set a more precise launch date in March or April and kept emphasizing that they are on a good path, but “we have yet to perform.”

Europe has had independent access to space since the Ariane program began in the early 1980s, but a variety of factors have put it in a “crisis” situation now as Aschbacher often says.

Ariane 6 was supposed to be ready by 2020 so Ariane 5 was phased out. The final Ariane 5, Europe’s most capable booster, lifted off in July. For medium-sized payloads, Europe had an agreement with Russia to use its Soyuz rockets, but that dissolved after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.  Europe’s Vega rocket is used for small payloads, but the new version, Vega-C, failed on its second launch last year and suffered a further setback this summer 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.

Europe now is in a position of buying launch services from SpaceX for spacecraft that can’t wait until Ariane 6 and Vega-C are flying. ESA purchased three for Euclid, Hera and EarthCARE, and the European Union bought two to launch four Galileo positioning and navigation satellites.

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