Top NewsAriane-6 First Launch: Europe's rocket blasts off for first time

Ariane-6 First Launch: Europe’s rocket blasts off for first time

video title, Moment Ariane-6 takes off for the first time

  • author, Jonathan Amos
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Europe’s big new rocket, the Ariane-6, blasted off on its first flight.

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

Crews at the Kourou stadium cheered as the €4bn (£3.4bn) rocket – which had been built – soared into the sky.

But after climbing steadily to the desired altitude and successfully releasing several small satellites, the rocket’s upper-stage experienced an anomaly at the end of the flight.

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

This prevented the Areon’s upper-stage from being able to initiate the burn that would have brought it out of orbit, and set up the mission’s final task – the removal of the two re-entry capsules.

Controllers were unable to rectify the situation, however the flight was declared a success.

“We’re relieved; we’re excited,” said Joseph Aschbacher, director general of the European Space Agency.

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

Ariane-6 is a workhorse rocket that gives European governments and companies independent access to space from the rest of the world. It already has a backlog of publishing deals, but there are concerns that its design could limit future opportunities.

Like its predecessor Ariane-5, the new model is disposable – each mission requires a new rocket, whereas the latest US vehicles are built to be fully or partially reusable.

Even so, European space officials believe Ariane-6 can carve out a niche for itself.

On the surface, the 6 looks a lot like the old 5, but under the skin uses sophisticated manufacturing techniques (3D printing, friction stir welding, augmented reality design, etc.) that are faster and cheaper. Production.

Ariane-6 will operate in two configurations:

  • The “62” will incorporate two solid fuel side boosters to lift medium payloads.
  • “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, which places the payloads in their precise orbits above the Earth.

This stage has the new ability to be stopped and restarted multiple times, which is useful when launching large numbers of satellites into a constellation or network.

The re-ignition platform will help pull itself back to Earth, so it doesn’t become persistent space debris.

That the inaugural flight failed to demonstrate this will disappoint engineers, but should not put the Ariane-6 project on hold.

“A lot of missions don’t need to be restarted in microgravity. That’s a flexibility that we may or may not use and adjust the flight profile depending on what we find in the data,” said Martin Sion, the rocket’s chief executive. Manufacturer ArianeGroup.

“To be 100% clear, we are ready to do a second launch this year and a sixth launch next year,” said Stephen Israel of Arianespace, the company marketing the new rocket.

Ariane 6 vs Falcon 9

Startup flights are always high-risk occasions. It’s not unusual for a new rocket design to have some sort of anomaly or outright failure.

Ariane-5 self-detonated in 37 seconds when it was launched in 1996. This loss was reduced by an error in the control software.

But a modified rocket later came back to dominate the commercial launch market for the world’s largest satellites.

That dominance was broken in the 2010s by American entrepreneur Elon Musk and his reusable Falcon-9 rocket.

Falcon flight rates and prices make Ariane-5 less competitive.

Europe is moving towards recycling, but the necessary technologies will not be in service until the 2030s. Meanwhile, Mr Musk is introducing even bigger rockets that promise to drive down launch costs even further.

Ariane-6 enters a very challenging environment.

“We can all have our own opinions. What I would like to reiterate is that we have a full order book,” said Lucia Linares, head of space transportation strategy at ESA.

“I think the word is getting out to customers: They’ve said Ariane-6 is an answer to their needs.”

image source, Ariangroup

image caption, Ariane-6’s core stage engine burns a mixture of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen

Missile contracts are in place to carry the rocket through its first three years of operations. These include 18 launches by another American billionaire, Jeff Bezos, who wants to establish a cluster of Internet satellites called Kuiper.

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

If this flight rate can be achieved, the rocket will be able to sustain itself, said Pierre Lyonnet of space consultancy AST Eurospace.

“First, we need to make sure there is enough demand from European customers – European companies. Then Ariane needs to win a few commercial customers beyond Kuiper. This will give it a market,” he told BBC News.

“But it’s pricing. If Falcon-9 systematically undercuts Ariane-6’s price offer, there will be a problem.”

Ariane-6 is a project of ESA’s 13 member states led by France (56%) and Germany (21%). Thirteen partners have pledged grants of up to €340m (£295m) a year to support the initial phase of Ariane-6 exploitation.

The UK was a leading player in the launch of Europe’s launcher program and remains an Esa member state, but its direct involvement in Ariane ended when the Ariane-4 model was retired in 2003.

A few UK companies continue to supply parts on a commercial basis, and some British-built spacecraft will no doubt continue to fly on Ariane.

image caption, Elon Musk is currently developing large reusable rockets

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