First launch of Ariane 6: European rocket launched for the first time

  • Author, Jonathan Amos
  • Role, Science Correspondent
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Europe’s big new rocket, Ariane-6, has been successfully launched on its maiden flight.

The vehicle took off from a launch pad in French Guiana at approximately 4:00 p.m. local time (7:00 p.m. GMT) for a demonstration mission to launch a number of satellites into orbit.

The crews on the ground in Kourou applauded as the rocket lifted off into the air.

The €4 billion (£3.4 billion) Ariane 6 is intended to be a powerful rocket that will give European governments and businesses access to space independently of the rest of the world.

There are already a number of contracts in the works for the device’s launch, but there are concerns that the design could limit its future prospects.

Like its predecessor, the Ariane 5, the new model is one-off: each mission requires a new rocket, while the latest American vehicles are built to be fully or partially reusable.

Still, European space officials believe Ariane 6 can carve out a niche for itself.

“This is an important moment,” said Josef Aschbacher, Director General of the European Space Agency (ESA).

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

At first glance, the 6 looks a lot like the old 5, but underneath it uses the latest manufacturing techniques (3D printing, friction welding, augmented reality design, etc.) that should result in faster, cheaper production.

Ariane 6 will operate in two configurations:

  • The “62” will carry two solid-fuel side boosters for lifting medium-sized payloads
  • The “64” will have four strap-on boosters to lift the heaviest satellites on the market

The core stage is supplemented by a second, or upper, stage that launches the payload into a precise orbit high above the Earth.

This stage can be stopped and restarted multiple times, which is useful when launching large numbers of satellites in a constellation or network. The ability to restart the stage also allows the stage to pull itself back to Earth, preventing it from becoming a lingering piece of space junk.

Tuesday’s mission used the Ariane 62 variant. The rocket will climb to an altitude of 580 km before beginning to release free-flying payloads.

This is a mix of university and commercial spacecraft. It includes two capsules that will attempt to survive a fiery fall through the atmosphere to splash down in the Pacific Ocean.

One of the capsules, called Nyx Bikini, is a small-scale demonstration model from a French-German company that ultimately wants to develop spacecraft that can transport supplies and people to and from space stations in orbit around Earth.

Ariane 6 vs Falcon 9

Inaugural flights are always moments of great danger. It is not uncommon for a new rocket design to fail.

The Ariane 5 exploded on its debut in 1996 just 37 seconds after the aircraft had lifted off the ground. The loss was attributed to a bug in the control software.

But a revised rocket then returned to dominate the commercial launch market for the world’s largest satellites. That dominance was only broken in the 2010s by American entrepreneur Elon Musk and his reusable Falcon 9 rockets.

Falcon’s flight rates and prices undermine Ariane 5’s competitiveness.

Image caption, Artwork: The Exploration Company’s Nyx Bikini capsule is a small-scale demonstration of atmospheric reentry

Europe is moving toward reusability, but the technologies needed won’t be in use until the 2030s. And in the meantime, Musk is introducing even bigger rockets that will reduce launch costs even further.

This places Ariane 6 in a very challenging environment.

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

“I think the customers are having their say: they have said that Ariane 6 is an answer to their needs.”

Image source, ARIANE GROUP

Image caption, The Ariane 6 core engine burns a mixture of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen

There are launch contracts to get the rocket through its first three years of operation. These include 18 launches for another American billionaire, Jeff Bezos, who wants to set up a constellation of internet satellites he calls Kuiper.

European officials aim to fly Ariane 6 about once a month.

If this flight speed can be achieved, the rocket should be able to self-land, said Pierre Lionnet of aerospace consultancy ASD Eurospace.

“Firstly, we need to make sure there is enough demand from European customers – the European institutional customers. Then Ariane just needs to win a few more commercial customers in addition to Kuiper. That would give it a market,” he told BBC News.

“But it’s a question of price. If Falcon-9 systematically undercuts the price of Ariane-6, then there’s a problem.”

Ariane-6 is a project of 13 Esa member states, led by France (56%) and Germany (21%). The 13 partners have pledged grant payments of up to €340 million (£295 million) per year to support the early phase of Ariane-6 exploitation.

The United Kingdom played an important role from the beginning of the European launch programme and is still a member state of ESA. However, direct involvement in Ariane ended when the Ariane 4 model was discontinued in 2003.

A number of British companies will continue to supply components on a commercial basis and some British-built spacecraft will undoubtedly continue to fly on Ariane.

Image caption, Elon Musk is currently developing even larger reusable rockets

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