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

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

Europe’s new giant rocket, Ariane 6, has taken off on its maiden flight.

The spacecraft lifted off from a launch pad in French Guiana at 16:00 local time (19:00 GMT) on a demonstration mission to put a constellation of satellites into orbit.

Crews on the ground in Kourou applauded as the rocket – developed at a cost of €4bn (£3.4bn) – soared into the sky.

But after smoothly climbing to the desired altitude, and correctly launching a number of small satellites, the rocket’s upper stage experienced a malfunction towards the end of the flight.

The onboard computers made the decision to prematurely shut down the auxiliary power unit (APU) that was stressing the propulsion system.

This resulted in the Ariane rocket’s upper stage not being able to initiate the burn that was supposed to deorbit it, as well as set up the mission’s final task – jettisoning two re-entry capsules.

Flight controllers were unable to handle the situation, but the flight was nevertheless declared a success.

“We are relieved and excited,” said Josef Aschbacher, ESA’s director general.

“This is a historic moment,” he told reporters. “The inaugural launch of a new heavy-lift rocket does not happen every year; it only happens every 20 years, maybe 30 years. Today we successfully launched Ariane 6.”

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 can find a place for itself.

On the surface, the Phone 6 looks very similar to the old Phone 5, but under the skin, it takes advantage of modern manufacturing techniques (3D printing, friction welding, augmented reality design, etc.) that should lead to faster and cheaper production.

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 has the new ability to stop and restart multiple times, which is useful when launching large batches of satellites into a constellation or network.

Reignition should also allow the stage to pull itself back to Earth, so it doesn’t become a piece of residual space debris.

The fact that the inaugural flight couldn’t prove this will be a disappointment to engineers, but it shouldn’t hinder the Ariane 6 program.

“Many missions don’t need to restart in zero gravity,” said Martin Sion, CEO of rocket maker Ariane Group. “That’s a flexibility we can use or not, and we’ll adapt the flight profile depending on what we find in the data.”

Image source, French Air and Space Forces

Ariane 6 vs Falcon 9

Inaugural flights are always risky occasions. It is not uncommon for a new rocket design to have some kind of anomaly or a complete failure.

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.

But the modified rocket has since returned to dominate the commercial launch market for the world’s largest satellites.

This dominance was not broken until the second decade of the twenty-first century by American businessman Elon Musk and his reusable Falcon 9 rockets.

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

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.

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

If this 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.

“But it’s about pricing. If the price of the Falcon 9 is systematically undercutting the price of the Ariane 6, there will be a problem.”

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *