European rocket launches for the first time

by Jonathan Amos, Follow, Science Correspondent
AFP An Ariane 6 rocket lifts off from the launch pad at the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana, on July 9, 2024.AFP

Europe’s new large rocket, Ariane 6, successfully completed its first flight.

The vehicle departs from the launch pad, French Guiana launched a demonstration mission to put a series of satellites into orbit at around 16:00 local time (19:00 GMT).

The crew on the ground at Kouroo erupted in applause as the rocket soared into the sky.

Developed at a cost of 4 billion euros (£3.4 billion), Ariane 6 is intended to be the workhorse rocket giving European governments and companies access to space independent of the rest of the world.

There is already a backlog of launch contracts, but there are concerns that the design could limit future prospects.

Like its predecessor, the Ariane 5, the new rocket is disposable, requiring a new rocket for each mission, whereas the latest American rockets are built to be fully or partially reusable.

Still, European space officials believe Ariane 6 can hold its own.

“This is a big moment,” said Josef Aschbacher, director general of the European Space Agency (ESA).

“Daily life today relies heavily on information from satellites, from communications and Earth observation to weather forecasting and disaster management. It is inconceivable that Europe would not be guaranteed independent access to space,” he told BBC News.

Diagram of two versions of Ariane 6

On the surface, the 6 looks very similar to the old 5, but under the hood it utilizes cutting edge manufacturing techniques (like 3D printing, friction stir welding and augmented reality design) that make it faster and cheaper to produce.

Ariane 6 will operate in two configurations:

  • The “62” will incorporate two solid-fueled side boosters for lifting medium payloads.
  • The 64 will be equipped with four strap-on boosters to launch the heaviest satellites on the market.

The core stage will be supplemented by a second stage, or upper stage, that will place the payload into a precise orbit above Earth.

The stage can be stopped and restarted multiple times, which is useful when launching large numbers of satellites into a constellation or network, and a reignition function allows the stage to be pulled back to Earth so it doesn’t end up as space junk.

Tuesday’s mission used an Ariane 62 rocket. The rocket will rise to an altitude of 580 kilometers before beginning to unload its free-flying payload.

These are a mix of university and private spacecraft, including two capsules that aim to make a fiery fall through the atmosphere and splash down in the Pacific Ocean.

One of the capsules, named “Nyx Bikini,” is a small-scale demonstrator from a French-German company that aims to develop a spacecraft that could eventually transport supplies and people to and from a space station in Earth orbit.

Ariane 6 vs. Falcon 9

A first flight always carries great risk, and it’s not uncommon for new rocket designs to fail.

Ariane 5 exploded 37 seconds after takeoff during its first launch in 1996. The accident was blamed on an error in the control software.

But improved rockets have since come to dominate the market for commercial launches of the world’s largest satellites again, a dominance only broken in the 2010s by US entrepreneur Elon Musk and his reusable Falcon 9 rocket.

The Falcon’s flight rates and price make the Ariane 5 less competitive.

ESA artist's rendering of the Nyx Bikini capsule returning to EarthEuropean Space Agency

Artwork: Exploration Company’s Nyx Bikini capsule is a small-scale re-entry demonstrator

Europe is moving towards reuse, but the technology needed won’t be available until the 2030s. A bigger rocket This is expected to further reduce launch costs.

Ariane 6 will therefore be entering a very harsh environment.

“We all have our opinions, but I can reiterate that our order book is full,” said Lucia Linares, head of space transportation strategy at the European Space Agency.

“I think our customers are buying into that. They’re saying Ariane 6 will meet their needs.”

ARIANEGROUP's Vulcain-2 engine firing on the test standAriane Group

The Ariane 6 core stage engine burns a mixture of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.

The rocket has several launch contracts under contract for the first three years of operation, including 18 launches for another American billionaire, Jeff Bezos, who wants to build a constellation of internet satellites he’s named Kuiper.

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

At this speed, the rocket should be able to stand on its own, said Pierre Lionnet of space consultancy ASD Eurospace.

“Firstly, they need to make sure there is enough demand from European customers, European institutional investors. Secondly, Ariane needs to get some commercial customers beyond Kuiper and then there will be a market,” he told BBC News.

“But it’s a question of price. If Falcon 9 is systematically underpricing Ariane 6, that’s going to be a problem.”

Ariane 6 is a 13-nation ESA project led by France (56%) and Germany (21%), which have pledged up to 340 million euros (£295 million) per year in grants to support the early stages of Ariane 6’s development.

The UK has played a leading role in the European rocket launch programme since its inception and is still a member of ESA, but its direct involvement with Ariane ended when the Ariane 4 was retired in 2003.

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

Reuters Starship rocket to launch in June 2024Reuters

Elon Musk is currently developing an even larger, reusable rocket.

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