The debut of Europe’s new heavy-lift launcher, Ariane 6, has slipped once again, this time to a no-earlier-than target of the “last quarter of 2023.”
News of the delay came from ESA, CNES, ArianeGroup, and Arianespace officials during an Oct. 19 media briefing, though officials declined to define what caused the most recent multi-month delay to the debut flight. Instead, officials simply reiterated past issues that were already accounted for before the most-recent launch delay and declined to provide anything further.
The Path Ahead
Overall, officials across ArianeGroup, CNES, ESA, and Arianespace met in May 2022 for a full review of the readiness and key milestones ahead for Ariane 6.
The review highlighted several areas of inefficiency and triggered the creation of a streamlined management team who now seeks to work with project teams “on the development of the launcher and to reinforce activities and make sure we can work together as the three major entities in the development of the launcher,” noted Josef Aschbacher, ESA Director General.
A primary goal of the May 2022 review was to gain confidence in a launch date based on the remaining milestones ahead.
That review, along with work completed over the summer months in French Guiana and at various test and build facilities, indicate a no earlier than launch target of “the last quarter of 2023,” related Aschbacher.
Major critical path items ahead of the first flight include the continuation of the hot fire test sequence of Ariane 6’s upper stage and its Vinci engine. That test campaign began on Oct. 5 with a successful 45-second firing of the Vinci engine.
André-Hubert Roussel, CEO of ArianeGroup, noted, “We’re in the process of looking at terabytes of data to make sure we are good.”
“There remain a number of tests to perform, up to three hot firing tests before qualification of the engine for first flight.”
Moreover, significant work remains at the launch site in French Guiana, where the Combined Test full stack of Ariane 6 is fully assembled on the launch mount.
Initial communication demonstrations between the ground and the vehicle have proven successful, with initial tests still required for the fueling and electrical systems.
Additionally, the software that will control the launchpad and the rocket through countdown and fueling operations also needs to be finalized and taken through its paces.
Overall, the Combined Test is now scheduled for 2023 and will end with a multi-second static firing of the Ariane 6’s Vulcain 2.1 core stage engine.
Speaking to the pad infrastructure, Philippe Baptiste, President of CNES, said, “There were two main objectives for this pad. The first was to reduce cost and shorten the length of a campaign between Ariane 6 missions from that of Ariane 5.”
It takes approximately two months to turn around the launch facilities between Ariane 5 flights. Ariane 6 will have a projected one-month turnaround time between missions thanks to the horizontal integration of the launcher and dual launcher processing inside the horizontal work facility near the pad.
The second major priority for the new pad, as outlined by Mr. Baptiste, is to reduce the environmental impact of the launch facility.
This is being accomplished via the installation of a solar farm and the reduction of the overall energy cost of launch operations via new equipment at the pad.
Moreover, while initial hydrogen production for Ariane 6 will be the same used for Ariane 5, CNES is in the process of designing a new green hydrogen production facility in French Guiana which will aim to reduce the amount of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere during liquid hydrogen production.
This new green propellant production will not be ready until 2025 at the earliest, per current plans.
Onward to Launch
Once the upper stage firing qualification series and full stack Combined Tests are complete, teams will review all of the launch system qualification data, as well as the software necessary for those operations, to ensure everything is ready for the first flight vehicle to be stacked and readied for lift-off.
Overall, the first flight vehicle is not the critical path item toward the debut mission, with its various stages and propulsion elements ready to meet the late 2023 launch date.
The first flight vehicle is expected to ship to Kourou in early 2023; meanwhile, work on flight vehicles two and three are also progressing well.
What’s more, a significant propulsion element for Ariane 6 is already qualified due to its dual use on the new Vega-C rocket.
That rocket successfully took its first flight earlier this year and both met and surpassed preflight expectations on performance and payload insertion accuracy.
The first stage of the Vega-C is the P120C solid rocket motor, the same motor used as the side-mounted solids for the Ariane 6. Ariane 6 will use either two or four of the boosters depending on mission needs.
Speaking to this, Mr. Roussel stated, “The first flight of Vega-C went very well. The [Ariane 6] boosters [are]…a common part with Vega-C’s first stage. This gives very good confidence. It worked perfectly. This part of Ariane 6 is already qualified.”
A Look Beyond First Flight
Both Ariane 6 and Vega are critical to Europe’s goal of maintaining domestic access to space for their institutional and commercial needs.
At present, approximately 75% of the sold Ariane 6 manifest is for commercial missions, thanks largely to the block buy of missions from Amazon for the Kuiper space-based internet constellation.
Conversely, only 40% of Vega-C’s missions are commercial, with that launcher servicing much more of the European institutional market than its larger counterpart.
Both rockets’ performances stand to be enhanced in the coming years via the Ariane 6 Block II evolution.
This upgrade to the rockets will come from the P120C booster which will be lengthened to add additional propellant for increased payload performance to low Earth orbit (LEO).
The upgraded booster is officially referred to as P120C+ and will provide a 20% performance increase to the Ariane 6, with an ability to bring an extra three tons to LEO over the base variant.
The up-rated boosters will also have a performance increase benefit to Vega-C.
However, an upcoming Ministerial in November 2022 will define several key areas for the advancement of the European space sector and will focus, in part, on making a further evolutionary jump to the Vega rocket line.
From 8,000 kN to 15,000 kN. That's how much oomph Ariane 6 will have, depending on whether it's equipped with 2 or 4 solid-fuel boosters. What's new about these boosters?#ArianeGroup #Ariane6 pic.twitter.com/EvqIEd1EXk
— ArianeGroup (@ArianeGroup) October 18, 2022
Vega-E, as it is known, will not only make use of the new P120C+ booster as its first stage but will also eliminate the Zefiro 9 solid propellant third stage and the restartable AVUM+ upper stage of the Vega-C and replace them with a single methalox cryogenic upper stage.
Combined, those two changes will increase the overall performance of Vega-E by 20% over Vega-C while simultaneously reducing the rocket’s operational cost by 20% via the combination of two stages into one.
The new methalox upper stage for Vega-E will utilize the M10 engine under development by Avio. The engine was successfully fired for the first time between May and July 2022.
Vega-E is currently projected to debut no earlier than 2026.
(Lead image: Rendering of Ariane 6 in flight. Credit: Mack Crawford for NSF)