Ariane 6 successfully launches on maiden flight from French Guiana

by Adrian Beil

Europe’s new heavy-lift rocket, Ariane 6, has successfully launched on its maiden flight. Liftoff occurred one hour into a four-hour launch window on Tuesday, July 9, at 19:00 UTC. Ariane 6 launched from the Ensemble de Lancement Ariane-4 (ELA-4) launch pad at the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana.

The payload for this mission included several rideshare missions. These spacecraft are provided by different space agencies, commercial companies, and universities, including NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). 

Ariane 6

Conceived in the 2010s, Ariane 6 is expected to replace the retired Ariane 5 rocket. It is designed to halve the launch cost over time compared to Ariane 5, show the potential for more launches each year, and feature a re-ignitable upper stage that allows for more complex missions.

The configuration of Ariane 6 for its maiden flight was the Ariane 62 (A62). This means that, in addition to its first stage, upper stage, and fairing, the rocket featured two P120 solid rocket boosters, hence the “2” in “62.” These boosters, made by Avio, can be attached in configurations of two (for the A62 configuration) or four (for the A64 configuration).

Ariane 6 also flew with a shorter fairing for its maiden flight, bringing the rocket’s height to 56 m. The rocket’s diameter is 5.4 m, not including the solid boosters, and its overall mass at liftoff was 540 tonnes.

Ariane 62 fully stacked ahead of its maiden launch. (Credit: ESA)

When discussing the goals of Ariane 6, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher said, “Ariane 6 marks a new era of autonomous, versatile European space travel. This powerful rocket is the culmination of many years of dedication and ingenuity from thousands across Europe, and as it launches, it will re-establish Europe’s independent access to space.”

At liftoff, Ariane 62 generated 8,400 kN of thrust. When in the A64 configuration, the rocket will produce up to 15,400 kN of thrust. The payload mass to low-Earth orbit for the A62 configuration is 10.3 tonnes, while the A64 is capable of carrying up to 21.6 tonnes.

Ariane 6 was developed and built through the cooperation of many European countries. France contributes the most, with 55.6% of the rocket’s development and construction coming from the country, with Germany contributing an additional 20.8%. This is followed by Italy with 7.7%, Spain with 4.7%, and Belgium with 3.8%. Overall, 13 European countries are contributing funds to the development and operation of Ariane 6.

ESA was the main operator for the first flight of Ariane 6. Following the maiden flight, Arianespace will take over as the main operator for future flights. The prime contractor and producer of the rocket is the ArianeGroup. The Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES), France’s space agency, is overseeing the development and maintenance of the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana.

The payloads of Ariane 6’s maiden flight

A total of 11 payloads were launched on the maiden flight of Ariane 6. The first, provided by Exolaunch, is the ExoPod Nova, which is a payload deployment mechanism that will be supporting payloads developed by the University of Catalonia, the University of Lisbon, NASA, and Spacemanic. ExoPod Nova will carry one payload from each of the customers to space.

ExoPod Nova was constructed in Exolaunch’s headquarters in Berlin. It will fly the 16-unit, three-door “S3” configuration version on Ariane 6’s first flight. This configuration allows for four satellites to be positioned inside ExoPod Nova. The deployer itself masses less than 14 kg.

Exolaunch stated in a statement to NSF:”“We are proud that our ExoPod Nova, the most advanced cubesat deployment system on the market, is set to deliver four of our customers’ satellites into space on the Ariane 6 maiden flight. Our ExoPod systems have extensive flight heritage, are ITAR-free, and can be integrated with any launch vehicle, flying on nearly two dozen missions and deploying over 250 cubesats since 2017. ExoPods can accommodate cubesats of any size and have a fast reset time. The ExoPod has unparalleled capacity for lateral protrusions, offering up to four times more space compared to other deployers on the market. This feature significantly increases the possible mass capacity by 30%, making it an exceptional choice for diverse and high-demand missions.”

Overview of the payloads onboard Ariane 6’s maiden flight. (Credit: ESA)

The 3Cat-4 satellite of the University of Catalonia will be used to demonstrate a novel dual-frequency GNSS-R and GNSS-RI altimeter and scatterometer. An altimeter is used to measure the altitude of an object, while a scatterometer is used to measure wind direction and speed, based on the roughness of the sea.

ISTSat-1 is the first cubesat to be developed by a Portuguese university, and was selected after the University of Lisbon applied for ESA’s Fly Your Satellite! Program. ISTSat-1 will test Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B — an aircraft surveillance system designed to replace the Secondary Surveillance Radar in the future.

The Cubesat Radio Interferometry Experiment (CURIE) is a radio astronomy mission that will consist of two identical 3U cubesats. CURIE was developed by the University of California and NASA and aims to research the radio interferometry of radio burst emissions from eruptive solar events, such as coronal mass ejections.

GRBBeta is the final payload located on ExoPod Nova. The first version, GRBAlpha, launched on Soyuz in March 2021. GRBBeta is designed to detect and characterize gamma-ray bursts from massive solar events and will be operated by the University of Košice.

Exolaunch’s ExoPod Nova. (Credit: Exolaunch)

Alongside ExoPod Nova are 10 additional payloads. The first is Nyx Bikini, which is a technology pathfinder. The reentry capsule is just 60 cm in diameter and will help The Exploration Company collect data on atmospheric reentry and heat shields. Nyx Bikini is designed to withstand temperatures of up to 2,100 degrees Celsius.

OOV-Cube is a nanosatellite that masses less than 10 kg. The nanosatellite was built between TU Berlin and Rapid Cubes GmbH and will test in-orbit verification of L-band transceivers for inter-satellite communications between low-Earth orbit and geostationary orbit, verification of Perovskite solar cells, onboard AI inference and data processing, and the characterization of link parameters for IoT technology.

LIFI, a satellite provided by Oledcomm, will use light to verify the application of a higher-security, high-bandwidth version of WiFi. The 40 by 60 by 16 mm satellite consists of two SateLiFe payloads that will communicate with each other using LiFi.

Spacecraft Identification and Localization (SIDLOC) is an experiment from a Greek non-profit called the Libre Space Foundation. The goal of SIDLOC is to speed up the process of identifying space missions in orbit. In a statement to NSF, Libre Space stated, “During the mission, SIDLOC will be tested for the first time in real flight conditions. This means that the SIDLOC beacon will transmit a signal carrying information about the location and identity of the spacecraft. The signal will be received by ground stations on Earth. These ground stations are part of the SatNOGS Network, the world’s biggest open-source network of satellite ground stations. The received signal and all the significant information regarding the spacecraft (including its ID) will help identify the spacecraft itself as well as its exact location in space (using the Doppler effect), contributing to the spacecraft’s rapid identification and localization and speeding up the processes.”

The SIDLOC experiment. (Credit: ESA/ArianeGroup/Arianespace/CNES)

PariSat is a cubesat developed by the amateur space club Garef Aerospatial in Paris. The group, consisting of members between 15 and 25 years old, built the experiment in their free time. The payload will test eight square plates, which are each just four cm wide, to determine how they operate as in-space radiators.

Peregrinus is a fixed payload onboard Ariane 6. The experiment was developed by high-school students at Sint-Pieterscollege in Brussels and the Institut Vallee Bailly in Belgium. Peregrinus aims to measure the correlation between Earth’s magnetic field and the occurrence and intensity of X-ray and gamma radiation.

RAMI, an interplanetary deployment mechanism, is another deployer being launched on this mission. Produced by UARX Space, RAMI aims to demonstrate a simplified way to store and deploy cubesats. The deployer will host two cubesats for this mission: the Replicator mission from Orbital Matter and the Robusta-3A mission from the University of Montpellier.

UARX’s CEO, Yanina Hallak, said, “RAMI is the first and only cubesat deployer designed and built in Spain. It has multiple redundancies and two different technologies, and cubesats can charge their batteries while in transit to space. It is intended for use in interplanetary missions.”

SpaceCase SCX-01. (Credit: ArianeGroup)

Robusta-3A aims to improve the accuracy of weather forecasts around the Mediterranean Sea. Over 300 students participated in developing the cubesat.

Another reentry capsule being launched on this mission is SpaceCase SC-X01, which was designed by the ArianeGroup. The capsule features a heat shield constructed of structural heat-resistant carbon resin and aims to help design future heat shields to make them lighter and cheaper.

Curium One is a 12-unit cubesat designed by Berlin-based Planetary Transportation Systems. The aim of the payload is to provide a cubesat for amateur radio communities that can be used as an open-source hardware and software testbed.

The final payload being launched by Ariane 6 is the YPSat, which was designed and developed by ESA. YPSat stands for “Young Professionals Satellite,” as the mission’s core team is comprised of 30 young professionals from various ESA institutions. YPSat aims to capture all the key phases of Ariane 6’s maiden flight and will take images of various events during the flight. The satellite aims to relay the images down to Earth before reentering.

Ariane 6’s first stage

The first stage of Ariane 6, also referred to as “the core,” holds most of the rocket’s liquid propellant and features the liquid-fueled Vulcain 2.1 engine. The core has a diameter of 5.4 m and will have a propellant mass of 140,000 kg. The stage was fueled with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.

Connecting Ariane 6’s upper and core stage. (Credit: ESA-M. Pédoussat)

The Vulcain 2.1 engine is similar in thrust and performance numbers to the previous Vulcain 2 engine that flew on the first stage of the Ariane 5. Vulcain 2.1 delivered 1,370 kN of thrust at liftoff and has a specific impulse in a vacuum of 431 seconds. The most significant difference between Vulcain 2.1 and Vulcain 2 is the manufacturing process. The total part count of the nozzle was reduced by 90%, the cost by 40%, and the production time by 30%.

The boosters on the sides of the core stage are two P120 solid-fuel rocket motors provided by Avio. The boosters are not only used on Ariane 6, but also on the Vega-C rocket, where they serve as the rocket’s first stage. The P120s are the European replacement for the previously used P80 solid motors.

First tested in 2018, the two motors have a diameter of three meters and provide the majority of thrust at liftoff. Each generates 4,650 kN of thrust and has a propellant mass of 140,000 kg.

Hot firing of Ariane 6’s P120C motor. (Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace/Optique vidéo du CSG – JM Guillon)

The solid boosters’ structural casing is carbon fiber and also features pre-impregnated epoxy sheets. The solid propellant consists of 19% aluminum powder, 69% ammonium perchlorate, and 12% hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene binder. In the future, the boosters are planned to be upgraded to the stretched P120C+ version. This would increase the LEO performance of Ariane 6 by two tonnes in each configuration.

Ariane 6’s upper stage

One of the biggest changes in the Ariane infrastructure with the Ariane 6 is the upper stage. The Vinci upper stage engine is developed and designed by the ArianeGroup and uses liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Vinci is based on the previous HM7B engine platform, but, in contrast, can restart up to five times. This allows for more complex in-orbit missions. The engine also features a deployable rocket nozzle extension, which increases the engine’s overall length after stage separation from 2.3 to 4.2 m.

The upper stage provides a thrust of 180 kN and a specific impulse of 457 seconds. Vinci uses an expander cycle and has a chamber pressure of 6.08 MPa. Vinci’s upgraded ability to reignite means that the upper stage can be deorbited at the end of missions.

The timeline for Ariane 6’s maiden flight

The timeline of Ariane 6’s maiden flight included several events, including multiple ignitions of the Vinci engine.

At T-7 seconds, the Vulcain main engine was ignited and analyzed before the P120 boosters were ignited. At T0, the boosters ignited, and liftoff occurred.

The solid boosters then burned until T+2:16 minutes, at which point both burned out and separated from Ariane 6’s first stage. At T+3:39 minutes, the payload fairing was jettisoned.

The Vulcain 2.1 engine continued to fire until T+7:35 minutes. Following the shutdown of the first stage engine, stage separation occurred. At T+8:50 minutes, the Vinci engine ignited. Shortly after that, at T+8:53 minutes, the first auxiliary propulsion unit (APU) powered up. The APU devices pressurize the upper stage tanks, prepare the Vinci engine for in-flight relights, and provide additional thrust on-demand if needed.

At T+18:32 minutes, the Vinci engine shut down for the first time and entered a coasting phase for roughly 35 minutes. Following the completion of the coast phase, at T+56:20 minutes, the Vinci engine performed its first relight for 22 seconds.

The first, second, and third separation commands for several payloads were conducted between T+1:05:53 and T+1:06:02. After the deployment of these payloads, the APU was due to start up again at T+1:14:12 for minor orbital adjustments and tank pressurization. The APU was expected to operate for 35 minutes, but shut down almost immediately.

At T+2:37:15, the Vinci engine should have performed its third and final relight before deploying the two reentry capsules, Nyx Bikini and SpaceCase SC-X01. However, the APU failure rendered the burn and deployment impossible.

Although the upper stage did enter passivation automatically, it will remain in uncontrolled orbit until its orbit decays.

(Lead image: Ariane 62 launching on its maiden flight. Credit: ESA/M. Pédoussaut)

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