July 17, 2024

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Ariane 6 First Launch: Big Rocket Prepares to Take to the Sky

Ariane 6 First Launch: Big Rocket Prepares to Take to the Sky

Image source, European Space Agency/CNES/ArianeRob

  • author, Jonathan Amos
  • Role, Science Correspondent
  • Twitter,

Europe’s new large rocket, Ariane 6, is scheduled to make its first flight later this month.

The spacecraft will launch from French Guiana on a demonstration mission to place a constellation of satellites into orbit.

Developed at a cost of €4bn (£3.4bn), the Ariane 6 is a powerful rocket that will give European governments and companies access to space independently of the rest of the world.

Its launch contracts have already piled up, but there are concerns that its design could limit its future prospects.

Like its predecessor, the Ariane 5, the new model is expendable—a new rocket is needed for each mission, while the latest American vehicles are built to be fully or partially reusable.

However, European space officials believe the Ariane 6 rocket is capable of finding a home of its own.

“This is a great moment,” said ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher.

“Everyday life today really depends on information from satellites, from telecommunications and Earth observation to weather forecasting and disaster management,” he told BBC News. “It is inconceivable that Europe would not have guaranteed independent access to space.”

The launch from the equatorial Kourou spaceport is scheduled for a four-hour window, starting at 15:00 local time (20:00 CEST; 19:00 GMT).

The Ariane 6 rocket will operate in two configurations:

  • The 62 will feature two solid-fuel side boosters to lift medium-sized payloads.
  • The “64” will have four attachable boosters to lift the heaviest satellites on the market.

The core stage is completed by a second, or upper, stage, which will place the payloads into precise orbits high above the Earth.

This stage can be stopped and restarted multiple times, which is useful when launching large batches of satellites into a constellation or network. The ability to re-ignite also allows the stage to pull itself back to Earth so it doesn’t become a piece of residual space debris.

Tuesday’s mission will use an Ariane 62 rocket, which will rise to an altitude of 580 kilometers before starting to unload its free payloads.

It’s a mix of university and commercial spacecraft. It includes two capsules that will attempt to survive a fiery fall through the atmosphere before landing in the Pacific Ocean.

One of the capsules, called Nix Bikini, is a small-scale prototype of a Franco-German company that eventually aims to develop a spacecraft that can ferry supplies and people to and from space stations in Earth’s orbit.

Ariane 6 vs Falcon 9

Inaugural flights are always risky occasions. It is not uncommon for a new rocket design to fail.

The Ariane 5 spacecraft famously exploded 37 seconds after liftoff from Earth on its first flight in 1996. The loss was attributed to a control software error.

Falcon’s flight prices and fares undercut Ariane 5’s competitiveness.

Comment on the photo, Artwork: The Exploration Company’s Nyx Bikini capsule is a small-scale reentry demonstration.

Europe is moving toward reusability, but the necessary technologies won’t be in service until the 2030s. Meanwhile, Mr. Musk is introducing bigger rockets that promise to cut launch costs even further.

Thus, Ariane-6 enters a challenging environment.

“We can all have our own opinions,” said Lucia Linares, who heads ESA’s space transportation strategy. “What I can confirm is that we have a full order book.”

“I think the word here is directed to the customers: they said that Ariane-6 is the solution to their needs.”

Image source, Ariangroup

Comment on the photo, The Ariane 6 rocket’s core stage engine burns a mixture of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.

There are contracts to launch a rocket that will carry it with it for the first three years of its operation. These contracts include 18 launches for another American billionaire, Jeff Bezos, who wants to build a group of internet satellites called “Kuiper.”

European officials aim to launch the Ariane 6 rocket about once a month.

If that rate of flight can be achieved, the rocket must be able to stabilize itself, said Pierre Lionnet of space consultancy ASD Eurospace.

“First, we need to ensure that there is enough demand from European customers – European institutions. Then Ariane needs to win a few commercial customers besides Kuiper. That would give it a market,” he told BBC News.

Ariane 6 is a project of 13 ESA member states, led by France (56%) and Germany (21%). The 13 partners have promised subsidies of up to €340m (£295m) per year to support the early phase of Ariane 6’s exploitation.

The UK was a leading player in the early European launch programme, and remains a member state of the European Space Agency, but its direct involvement in Ariane ended when the Ariane 4 model was retired in 2003.

Some British companies continue to supply components on a commercial basis, and some spacecraft built in Britain will almost certainly continue to fly on Ariane rockets.

Comment on the photo, Elon Musk is currently working on developing larger reusable rockets.