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Europe’s Ariane 6 Ready for Pioneering Space Launch

spacecraft launching into orbit during sundown
Photo by SpaceX on

Europe’s new Ariane 6 rocket is finally set to make its debut next week, marking a significant milestone for the continent’s space ambitions. The European Space Agency’s (ESA) most powerful rocket to date is scheduled to launch from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, at 3:00 pm (1800 GMT) on July 9. This launch comes after four years of delays and is seen as a crucial step for Europe to regain independent access to space, especially in the face of mounting competition from Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

It’s meant that Europe has had to look elsewhere, including to U.S. firm SpaceX, for launching satellites and other missions since the final flight of its predecessor, Ariane 5, a year ago. The situation was further complicated subsequently by Russia’s withdrawal of its Soyuz rockets from Kourou after its invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and by Europe’s grounding of its Vega-C light launcher following a launch failure later that year. ESA CEO Josef Aschbacher stated, “Everything that could go wrong went wrong,” the concern above, is because Ariane 6 shall be inextricably linked with European space sovereignty.

First, it will place satellites in geostationary orbit, which is 36,000 kilometers above Earth and identical to Earth’s rotation, hence satellites launched from it appear in fixed positions. It can also launch constellations some few hundred kilometers up. The upper stage of this rocket, the Vinci engine, will ignite as soon as the rocket takes off and places the satellites already fitted into orbit, multitasking before falling into the Pacific Ocean.

The first flight will use two boosters; a four-booster version is set to enter service next year, about mid. But unlike the Falcon 9, the Ariane 6’s boosters and other elements are expendable. Billionaire Elon Musk has crowed about this, but European officials say reusability would not have made economic sense for a rocket that’s designed for fewer flights than the Falcon 9.

When launched, the rocket will launch nine times a year, an enormous shift from the Falcon 9 ahead, which had 14 of its launches in May. The first flight will fly 18 smaller items, including university micro-satellites and scientific experiments. The rocket’s first commercial flight is booked for later than 2024 with 14 more planned, according to SpaceX’s schedule, over the next two years.

Despite these hardships, the space business is booming. A forecast by consulting firm Novaspace indicates that spending on launchers, satellites, and other space economy components could rocket to U.S. $822 billion by 2032 from $508 billion last year. That growth has yet to translate into profits for Ariane 6. The first 15 launches are paid for, but ESA’s 22 member states have agreed to subsidize the rocket for up to 340 million euros a year from its 16th to 42nd flights in return for an 11% discount.

Already, an order book on behalf of Ariane 6 stands at 30 missions strong, with 18 of those deploying some of Amazon’s Kuiper constellation of internet satellites. “absolutely unprecedented for a rocket that has not flown.” declared Stephane Israel, CEO of launch service provider Arianespace.

Days before the first flight, however, Europe’s weather satellite operator announced it was canceling plans to use the Ariane 6 and would instead turn to SpaceX’s Falcon 9, citing “exceptional circumstances.” Philippe Baptiste, head of France’s CNES space agency, labeled it “a very disappointing day for European space efforts.”

The challenge of how to survive in a competitive honeypot of rockets lies before Ariane 6. Martin Sion, CEO of ArianeGroup, underscored that Ariane 6 is “Europe’s sovereignty launcher,” important for keeping up the continent’s independent access to space.

More for you:

  • ESA Academy: Apply now for CubeSat Concurrent Engineering Workshop 2024.
  • Europe’s Ariane 6 rocket finally ready for liftoff.

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