Ariane 6’s first flight likely to slip into 2024

by Bella Richards

Just over six months ago the European Space Agency (ESA) revealed the much-anticipated Ariane 6 would debut by the end of 2023, but now in the second quarter of the year, it is becoming clearer that the heavy-lift rocket won’t fly until 2024.

While ESA or ArianeGroup, which is developing the vehicle, hasn’t officially announced the further delay, one of the component suppliers of the rocket, Germany-based OHB, said in a financial earnings call last week that it will likely launch next year. Further, on Friday, ESA posted a new update on the Ariane 6’s progress, and the key milestones it is required to achieve before launch are already well behind previously stated schedule goals.

The long-delayed rocket

Ariane 6 is one of the most anticipated rockets within the European industry and is set to give “independent access to space” to the continent. While many have argued that the vehicle, which was first conceptualized in 2014, is outdated due to increasing calls for reusability, the rocket will undoubtedly increase launch capacity in Europe and provide a cheaper option compared to its predecessor, the Ariane 5.

The rocket’s lower stage is fitted with an updated version of the Ariane 5’s engine, the new Vulcain 2.1, and is built with a new Vinci engine in its upper stage that can reignite, giving it the ability to place satellites into several orbits. The Ariane 6 can also provide flexibility by giving customers options for two or four P120C strap-on boosters.

First hot-fire test of a P120C. (Credit: ESA)

It was supposed to debut in 2020, but woes from the pandemic, supply chain issues, and now seemingly secretive reasons have kept the Ariane 6 from finally taking to the skies.

In October 2022, the director general of ESA, Josef Ashbacher, said during a press briefing that the Ariane 6 would launch by the fourth quarter of 2023, but still needed to “successively and timely achieve a number of key milestones in order for this schedule to remain valid.” Further, Aschbacher claimed that they needed to be “accomplished by the first quarter of 2023 in order for the inaugural flight” by the end of the year.

The director general was referring to three milestones: the hot fire test of the upper stage’s Vinci engine, the hot fire test of the lower stage’s Vulcain 2.1 engine, and the rocket’s full qualification review.

However, according to the latest update from ESA, these tests won’t occur until the middle to late half of the year. Starting in May, the lower stage is set to complete two wet dress rehearsals and a long firing test on the launch pad, followed by the launch system qualification review in late June, and then an upper stage test in July.  Only in November will the launch vehicle assembly take place, including a final dress rehearsal.

While this new update doesn’t confirm the delay, OHB’s comments further cement the possibility. The German company was one of Ariane 5’s biggest suppliers, and in 2021, OHB’s subsidiary, MT Aerospace, signed a contract to develop components for the Ariane 6. In the May 10 earnings call, chief executive Marco Fuchs said:

“It’s not yet launched, but we hope that it will launch in the early part of next year. I am getting more and more confident we will see the first launch of Ariane 6 early next year… I think we are within a year of the first launch and that is psychologically very important.”

This marked the first public announcement from anyone involved in the rocket’s development that the launch date is likely to slip into 2024.

Tests underway

Regardless of the ongoing delays, the Ariane 6 has completed several successful tests of its components over the past year.

In January 2022, the central core stage – both the lower and upper stage – of the Ariane 6 arrived by boat to the French Guiana spaceport in Kourou, run by launch base prime contractor, CNES. The two parts arrived from separate locations, with the lower stage from ArianeGroup’s Les Mureaux site in France, and the upper stage from the company’s Bremen factory in Germany.  They were unpacked and installed on the assembly line machinery to form the central core.

The combined test Ariane 6 full stack test article on ELA-6 in French Guiana. (Credit: ESA-Manuel Pedoussaut)

In January 2023, the upper stage completed a hot fire test on the German Aerospace Centre Lampoldshausen test bench in Germany. The Vinci engine operated for the “planned duration,” according to ESA, and the rocket’s auxiliary power unit (APU) was successfully fired twice.

The APU is one of the rocket’s key unique features. What is also known as the “heart of versatility” of the Ariane 6, according to ArianeGroup, the APU allows the rocket to reach several orbits in one launch. Its main role is to pressurize the tanks and to prepare the Vinci engines for its reignitions. ArianGroup explains that it settles “its propellants towards the bottom of the tanks to ensure optimal operation of the Vinci engine’s turbopumps. Because the behavior of fluids is significantly affected by weightlessness, the propellants would tend to disperse throughout the tanks otherwise.”

According to ESA, the assembly of the elements of the first flight model – which is the launcher for the inaugural flight – is “well advanced.” The vehicle will use two solid rocket boosters, also known as the 62 configuration.

Ariane 6 and Europe’s access to space

The Ariane 6, alongside its smaller companion, the Vega-C, which completed its first flight in July 2022, is vital to Europe’s space industry, regardless of its lacking reusability qualities.

Although the Ariane 5 was known as the reliable workhorse rocket for Europe for almost 30 years, the Ariane 6 will increase its capability, while being almost half as expensive. The Ariane 5 achieved an average of up to seven launches a year, but the Ariane 6 could launch up to 11. It will also boast a quicker turnaround time at the launch facility, from two months to one.

Further, launching with the Ariane 5 costs of up to $175 million, but Ariane 6 will cost between $77 million and $126 million, depending on the booster configuration.

While the number is still significantly than Falcon 9’s $67 million per launch, the costs that are involved in transferring equipment to the United States from Europe will certainly make a local option far more appealing. Plus, Ariane 6’s rideshare for small satellites, start-ups, and small companies will be able to launch for cheaper.

Despite the consistent delays, the rocket has already garnered a reasonable order book. In February 2022, ESA announced it had selected the payloads for its demonstration mission, including several small experiments weighing up to 12 kilograms. After that, the Ariane 6 secured several anticipated launches, such as ESA’s Galileo constellation, 18 for Amazon’s Project Kuiper, two for Intelsat, and several more.

ESA hopes to provide another update about the Ariane 6’s development in June and is scheduled to provide a precise launch date soon.

(Lead image: Render of Ariane 6 launching. Credit: ESA)

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