Europe set to launch Ariane 6 rocket to achieve independence in space

The ESA is attempting the first flight of the largest and most powerful device developed on the continent, which if successful will end European dependence on allies and private companies

Ariane 6, en la plataforma de lanzamiento del Puerto Espacial Europeo de Kourou (Guayana Francesa)
The Ariane 6 at Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, on June 20.ESA - L. Bourgeon
Nuño Domínguez

The largest rocket ever developed in Europe, a colossus as tall as an 18-story building and weighing more than 500 tons, is ready to take off on Tuesday from the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. The Ariane 6 is relevant from a technological, scientific and even geostrategic viewpoint, since European countries are hoping to gain independent access to space without having to resort to other allied powers or private companies to launch their satellites. If everything goes according to plan, the space vehicle will take off on Tuesday between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Eastern time.

“All the tests carried out so far tell us that our baby, Ariane 6, works perfectly,” said the Spaniard Lucía Linares, head of space transportation strategy at the European Space Agency (ESA), at a news conference. The inaugural flight could be the culmination of a project that comes with years of delays and significant cost overruns in a total budget of almost €4 billion ($4.3 billion).

In the minds of many of the hundreds of engineers who participated in the development of the Ariane 6 there is a terrifying image. On June 4, 1996, the first Ariane 5 took off on its maiden flight from the same spaceport in Kourou. Just 37 seconds after takeoff, the huge rocket suddenly veered and flew into the air, destroying a constellation of European satellites. Television images showed a dead silence in the control room, while on the beaches of Guyana dozens of people watched in astonishment as the fuselage fragments fell towards the jungle in all directions, leaving very long trails of smoke in the sky. They were the most expensive fireworks in the history of Europe, according to the headline in the French newspaper Libération. And it was all due to a computer programming error.

Workers analyzing the payload of the first Ariane 6 before inserting it into the rocket.
Workers analyzing the payload of the first Ariane 6 before inserting it into the rocket. ESA

Despite the inaugural accident, the Ariane 5 survived to take off 117 times, the last in July 2023, with a nearly pristine service record. Europe now aims to replicate the success with some twists, including a reduction in production costs and greater sustainability over its predecessor. Although the idea is that Ariane 6 is a commercial rocket that private companies can hire, its raison d’être is different, according to Linares. “First of all, we have developed this rocket [...] to launch European institutional missions. The main reason is independent access to space for the missions of ESA, the European Union and its member states,” she highlighted.

Controversial approach

This approach is not without controversy, as the project has received hundreds of millions of additional euros in subsidies to make it possible. One of the greatest critics is the business tycoon Elon Musk, owner of the company SpaceX, to which the ESA has had to resort in the past to launch missions because the Ariane 6 was not yet ready. Musk said that no rocket that is not reusable, like his own, will have any chance in the market.

Regardless of what happens on Tuesday, the first 30 flights of the Ariane 6 and its heavier version, the Ariane 64, are already sold. Among the clients there are many public missions, but also 18 launches that Amazon chief Jeff Bezos has purchased to send into orbit his new space internet system, called Kuiper, according to Caroline Arnoux, vice president of Arianespace, the company that markets the flights of the new European rocket.

The goal of the inaugural flight is to reach a circular orbit at 580 kilometers above the Earth. The ascent will be made with an inclination of 62 degrees, something unusual but necessary so that the vehicle remains visible at all times from the monitoring stations spread over four continents, according to Michel Bonnet, head of Ariane 6 at ESA. The device carries on board several satellites and capsules that will be released once the final orbit is reached.

“We have a first phase, what we call commercial flight, in which we will launch the cubesats [small satellites],” Bonnet explained. “Then we will continue with a demonstration part where we will verify the behavior of the upper stage.” Two atmospheric re-entry capsules are also on board, which will fall into the Pacific Ocean and will not be recovered due to the cost, since they will fall near the pole of inaccessibility, or Nemo point, the furthest place from any coast.

The Ariane 6 is not reusable, but its upper stage for the first time has the ability to fire its thrusters multiple times. This will allow it to deploy satellite constellations in space and then re-enter the atmosphere and fall to Earth so as not to contribute to the growing mass of space junk orbiting the planet.

ESA wants to drastically reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, and to this end it is also developing a hydrogen electrolysis manufacturing plant at its Kourou spaceport that will fuel future rockets. In its current configuration, the Ariane 62 has two solid fuel boosters that are released about two minutes after takeoff. There is a more powerful future version, the Ariane 64, with four engines. Then there is a main and upper stage that consume liquid oxygen and hydrogen stored at 180 and 250 degrees below zero, respectively. It is this last part of the rocket that will undergo several test firings and shutdowns during Tuesday’s flight, which has a total duration of almost three hours.

If everything goes well, ESA hopes to launch another Ariane in December of this year and increase the number of launches to reach 10 per year. Thirteen countries have participated in its construction, and France leads the contribution with 55.6% of the total.

The main deficiency of this great European rocket is that it is only qualified to launch satellites and robotic space exploration missions. In theory it could be adapted to take astronauts to the International Space Station, since it has enough power for this, although first it would have to pass all the qualification tests, something that may not be reasonable given that this orbital laboratory is close to exhausting its life and be buried in the ocean. Europe’s great shortcoming continues to be not being able to send astronauts to space, especially to the Moon and beyond, for which it continues to depend entirely on its allies. Until the outbreak of the war in Ukraine in February 2022, Europeans traveled to space in Russian Soyuz spacecraft, designed in the 1960s, and extremely reliable even today. After the sanctions and breaking of relations with Russia, the only current option is to travel with the Americans or with a private company: Elon Musk’s Space X.

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