Europe ready for crucial first launch of Ariane 6

HELSINKI — Europe stands at a crucial moment as the Ariane 6 launch vehicle prepares for its maiden flight on Tuesday.

The Ariane 6 launch is scheduled for 9 July between 14:00 and 18:00 Eastern Time (18:00–22:00 UTC) from the Kourou launch site in French Guiana. The European Space Agency (ESA) will stream the launch live on ESAWebTV.

The inaugural Ariane 6 flight will feature the 56-meter-long ’62’ variant, equipped with two solid boosters. The main stage will be powered by the liquid hydrogen and oxygen-fueled Vulcain 2.1 engine. This is an upgrade of the Ariane 5 main Vulcain engine.

The 62 can carry up to 10.3 tons to low Earth orbit, while the larger “64” with four fixed boosters can lift up to 21.6 tons. However, the first flight will only carry a number of small satellites and experiments from space agencies, companies, research institutes, universities and young professionals.

The first launch follows years of delays. The launcher is designed to replace the venerable and now-retired Ariane 5 while reducing costs. The rocket was previously scheduled to fly for the first time in 2020.

The maiden launch of Ariane 6 will be a stressful and important first flight for prime contractor ArianeGroup, launch service provider Arianespace, ESA and other stakeholders, given launch vehicle delays, a backlog of 30 orders and a European space access crisis.

“It is crucial for Europe to regain autonomous access to space,” Hermann Ludwig Moeller, director of the European Space Policy Institute, told Space News.

This would ensure the launch of its own institutional missions. These include the EU space programme, EUMETSAT meteorological satellites, ESA missions, security and defence-related missions and commercial missions of operators, Moeller noted.

There are already 30 launches booked for Ariane 6, 18 of which are for Amazon’s Kuiper constellation.

There is a sense of insecurity as there are plans to increase the number of Ariane 6 flights to nine per year as quickly as possible, depending on a successful flight.

Test launches, however, have a high failure rate. “Statistically, there is a 47% chance that the first flight will not be successful or will not go exactly as planned,” ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher said in May, tempering expectations.

Moeller added that the operational launcher would benefit “space applications such as climate monitoring, improved weather forecasting, banking and timing services, secure communications, 5G and the internet, civil and economic security, including the protection of critical infrastructures in transport, energy, digital and defense applications.”

“Ariane 6 is essential and a prerequisite for the implementation of a broader European space policy and strategy.”

Asked how the disposable Ariane 6 and the long delays have potentially cost the European space sector money, Moeller said: “The most important impact, in our view, is the fact that the focus on the launcher crisis has made it difficult to make progress on other files and in particular on the accelerated use of space, at a time when other space powers and commercial enterprises are doing exactly that, in a race.

“And it is not the Falcon 9 launcher that is most visible in the debate, but the Starlink communications constellation, familiar to every taxi driver. It is not too late for Europe to catch up, and IRIS2 is a step in that direction. However, the window of opportunity is now and it will close.”

The unexpected gap between the retirement of Ariane 5 and the entry into service of Ariane 6 forced ESA to launch its Euclid space telescope on a Falcon 9 last year, followed by the EarthCARE satellite in May.

Interestingly, European weather satellite operator Eumetsat announced in late June that it had moved one of its geostationary weather satellites from an Ariane 6 to a Falcon 9. The move, which took place for complicated but unexplained reasons, took European space officials by surprise, according to Eumetsat.

Another development, partly in response to the space access crisis, is that Europe is looking to diversify its launch services. An ESA Council resolution of 5 July cleared the way for the ESA-developed Vega to be commercialised by prime contractor Avio.

The Council also authorised the use of the spaceport in French Guiana for four micro and mini launchers operated by the European launch service providers Isar Aerospace, MaiaSpace, PLD Space and Rocket Factory Augsburg (RFA).

“These decisions create the conditions for more diverse European launch services in an increasingly competitive environment,” an ESA statement said.

RFA said in a statement to Space Newscalled for change. The company’s position is that in the future, private industry should build rockets, while ESA and the EU should buy the service. “The development and operation of the service after the launch of Ariane 6 will be led by private industry,” RFA reported. The company, meanwhile, called Ariane 6 “a great pan-European project” and was enthusiastic about the launch.

Moeller noted that Europe must also look beyond the first launch. “By 10 July, the focus in Europe must shift from launchers to the accelerated use of space, in all domains and for the benefit of the entire European economy, for the prosperity of its citizens, the competitiveness of its industries, and for the protection of world peace and inspiration for future generations.”

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