Since 2010, the European aerospace manufacturer ArianeGroup has been developing the Ariane 6 launch vehicle, a next-generation rocket for the European Space Agency (ESA). This vehicle will replace the older Ariane 5 model, offering reduced launch costs while increasing the number of launches per year. In recent years, the ArianeGrouip has been putting the rocket through its paces to prepare it for its first launch, which is currently scheduled for 2024. This past week, on Wednesday, November 23rd, the Ariane 6 underwent its biggest test to date as ground controllers conducted a full-scale dress rehearsal.
This consisted of complex fuelling, a launch countdown, and the ignition of the core stage’s Vulcain 2.1 liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen (LOX/LH2) engine. This was followed by a more than seven-minute engine burn that simulated the entire core stage flight phase, as would happen during an actual launch. The boosters were not ignited for this test, so the Ariane 6 remained firmly on the launch pad at Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana. The event was captured via live stream (shown below), showing the engine ignition (after an anomaly triggered an automated shutdown).
This was the longest “fully-stacked” test run for the rocket’s liquid propulsion module with a Vulcain 2.1 engine. The engine burn lasted for over seven minutes and consumed almost 150 metric tons (165 U.S. tons) of LOX/LH2 propellant from the Ariane 6 core stage tanks that was supercooled to cryogenic temperatures – below -250 °C (-418 °F). The test was monitored by thousands of sensors around the launchpad, and the data obtained will be analyzed meticulously to prepare for the Ariane 6’s first test flight.
Once the launch system is flight-tested and verified, it will have a very busy launch schedule! So far, the ESA has contracted with Arianespace to execute 26 launches, which include multiple Galileo navigation satellites. An Ariane 6 is also scheduled to launch the Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) element of the upcoming NASA-ESA Mars Sample Return mission that will transport the samples obtained by the Perseverance rover back to Earth. Between 2026 and 2035, Ariane 6 rockets will launch no less than four missions selected for the ESA’s Cosmic Vision 2015-2025 program.
This includes the PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO) and Atmospheric Remote-sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large-survey (ARIEL) exoplanet-hunting telescopes; the Comet Interceptor, and the Advanced Telescope for High-ENergy Astrophysics (ATHENA) X-ray telescope. The launch vehicle will also conduct multiple rideshare missions and launch cargo destined for the Moon in collaboration with NASA and other space agencies committed to the Artemis Program’s goal of creating a “sustained program of lunar exploration and development.”
Further Reading: ESA