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Ariane 6 launch campaign underway

April 29, 2024

Europe’s all-new Ariane 6 rocket is being assembled ready for a summer test launch. Its predecessor Ariane 5 rocket flew its last flight in July 2023. The new rocket should have been ready to seamlessly take over launch duties for the European Space Agency (ESA) and other commercial clients.

However, Ariane 6 is late. Very late. ESA’s contractors are working hard to ensure that the test flight takes place, probably in mid-June/end-July. Nevertheless, the actual first commercial flight isn’t likely until this coming winter.

This first iteration is officially called an Ariane 62, and is supported by a pair of strap-on side boosters. Together with the actual rocket’s core the combined assembly is capable of true heavy-lift launching about 10,000 kgs of cargo to low Earth orbit (LEO), or 4500 kgs to a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) and this capable of handling the bulk of ESA’s demands.

But the design of the core rocket can also accommodate 4 strap-on boosters and thus increase its cargo capacity to a massive 21,500 kgs to LEO or 11,500 kgs to GTO.

“Getting Ariane 6 to launch and to re-establish Europe’s access to space is of highest priority for ESA to resume regular rocket launches from Europe’s Spaceport,” states ESA DG Josef Aschbacher. “Having the rocket stages together on the launch pad marks the start of a launch campaign and shows we are almost there; soon we will see this beauty soar to the skies.”

Last week saw the technical teams from the French space agency and Arianespace at France’s Kourou launch centre transported the rocket’s central core to its launch pad on April 24th. Over the following two days the rocket’s two side boosters were moved to the pad.

The launch mission still has work to do not least actually attaching the boosters and then making the various electrical and mechanical links, but at least the rocket is taking real shape.

“Seeing the new European launcher standing on the launch zone marks the completion of years of work in the design offices and production plants of ArianeGroup and all our industrial partners in Europe,” said ArianeGroup CEO Martin Sion. “This event also signals the beginning of a new step of the first flight campaign, with all the challenges and complexities that this entails. The members of our Space Team Europe are bringing all their know-how and expertise to bear to ensure that the first flight will be a total success.”

Meanwhile, ESA and the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) are seeking a new occupier for a spare launch pad. It was once the home of Russia’s Soyuz rockets which themselves were regularly used by Arianespace for mid-weight launches. The dedicated launch pad was built in 2020 by ESA but halted in February 2022 when Russia retaliated to the various global sanctions placed upon it following the Ukrainian conflict.

CNES has published its invitation for a new tenant for the pad and its associated buildings. The CNES documents says prospective candidate launch vehicles will be required to be capable of deploying payloads of at least 1.5 tonnes into low Earth orbit. Additionally, a maiden flight from the launch site will need to be completed no later than 2027.

This will drastically limit the potential bidders but one potential candidate is MaiaSpace, which is targeting 2025 for its Maia rocket’s maiden flight.

This is good news for Kourou, but it has to be mentioned that its rival SpaceX is well on its own way to launching its giant Starship Flight #4, and this past weekend wrapped a launch for ESA from the Kennedy Space Center. The ESA cargo were a pair of Galileo GPS satellites and was the 20th – and final – flight of one of Space X’s now famously reliable boosters. This particular booster was not recovered given that it had been needed to carry the heavy mission into a mid-Earth orbit.

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