'Everything That Could Go Wrong Went Wrong.' After Four Years, ESA’s Finally Ready to Launch the Ariane 6 Rocket

  • The launch is scheduled for Tuesday, 9 July, at 2:00 p.m. ET from French Guiana.

  • This marks the European Space Agency’s return to space access after a long period without launches.

  • Additionally, the European operational satellite agency has decided to cancel its launch of the Meteosat satellite with Arianespace. It with launch it with SpaceX in 2025.

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Europe is about to end a long space launch hiatus with the first flight of the Ariane 6 rocket, which is set for July 9 from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana.

A four-year delay. The 184-foot-tall, 540-ton European rocket will finally take off on Tuesday, marking the end of a wait that has lasted for more than four years.

The development of Ariane 6 has faced challenges. Originally planned for 2020, its debut was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a series of difficulties that increased the initial budget by over 20%.

"Everything that could go wrong went wrong," Josef Aschbacher, the director general of the European Space Agency, said, according to Aschbacher praised the powerful launcher as “the culmination of many years of dedication and ingenuity from thousands across Europe.”

13 countries participated in the €4.5 billion ($4.87 billion) project, with France’s ArianeGroup serving as the prime contractor.

First flight live. Ariane 6’s first mission will be streamed live on ESA TV. The launch is scheduled for July 9, between 2:00 p.m. ET / 11:00 a.m. PT and 6:00 p.m. ET / 3:00 p.m. PT.

During its first flight, the rocket will demonstrate its capability to launch multiple payloads. It’ll carry several satellites, satellite deployers, and experiments from various European space agencies, companies, research institutes, and universities.

What’s new? Ariane 6 is the successor to the Ariane 5 and comes in two versions, Ariane 62 and Ariane 64, with either two or four solid-fuel side boosters. On Tuesday, the ESA will test the Ariane 62.

One of the most notable new features is its reignitable upper stage, which allows multiple satellites to be launched on a single mission. This makes it a better launcher for deploying satellite constellations, a market where Europe also wants to compete.

SpaceX’s competition. Ariane 5’s retirement in early 2023 left Europe without access to heavy-lift space, leading the ESA to contract SpaceX’s Falcon 9 for launches of the Euclid space telescope and four Galileo strategic satellites.

In addition, the interruption of Ariane rocket launches coincided with the temporary recall of the small European Vega and Vega C rockets due to several failures in a row. Some of these failures were truly embarrassing for Italian manufacturer Avio. A Falcon 9 also saved the European EarthCARE mission planned for a Vega-C. Later on, with the veto on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, SpaceX became the only option.

Although the reliance on Ariane 6 for launches seems to be coming to an end, SpaceX’s competition with ArianeGroup and Avio will continue. Out of the 25 launches reserved for Ariane 6, at least one customer, EUMETSAT (the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites), has opted to cancel the launch of its third-generation Meteosat satellite and instead launch with SpaceX in 2025.

A key launcher. The Ariane 6 is a crucial launcher for the European space program, despite EUMETSAT’s poor timing. Europe needs its own access to space to compete with China and India’s rapidly growing space programs.

Unlike SpaceX’s rockets, Ariane 6 isn’t reusable. However, it symbolizes Europe’s declaration of independence in space exploration. The continent aims to have 12 liftoffs per year, starting with two in 2024. This is an ambitious but necessary goal to stay relevant in the new space economy.

Image | European Space Agency

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